On purity culture and violence, briefly

1. When a mass murderer tells police that he was “eliminating temptation,” I don’t think the right response is to assume he is telling the truth even by his own perspective. Maybe he really thinks that’s what he was doing. But maybe he killed eight people because he despaired at life and was angry, and decided later that “eliminating temptation” was a rationale that made sense and kept him from committing suicide. 

2. In any event, it is definitely the wrong response to assume that his parents, friends, or pastors taught him—explicitly or implicitly—to do this. If you’re tempted to think this way, imagine that the group that mentored him are not someone you dislike such as “purity culture evangelicals,” but somebody different. 

3. I think stories like this are frustrating because they offer genuine insight mixed with a journalistic framing that is deeply untrustworthy. Brad Onishi, Jeff Chu, and Samuel Perry—the three voices brought in to criticize evangelical purity culture—are all examples of LGBT-affirming post-evangelicalism. Because of this framing, the subtext of the article is that there are really only two choices for evangelical Christians: double down on hating women and empowering shooters like Robert Long, or abandon core evangelical doctrines. This is exactly the posture that defines nearly all anti-purity culture writing I see, which is why I get so frustrated by it, even when it makes genuinely helpful points…

4…such as Perry’s observation that a lot of evangelical men evaluate their spiritual lives only by the rubric of “purity.” That’s so true.

5. No reasonable person denies that evangelical purity culture can make destructive mistakes. I lived in it, most of my friends did too. These are real stories. 

6. But at what point does your experience in youth group stop being formative? I mean this sincerely. Why do many critiques of purity culture hinge on an ongoing psychological trauma caused by the 3-4 years you spent as a teenager getting just about everything in your life messed up? Maybe one of the lessons of youth group purity culture is that it’s a bad idea to have a 22 year old youth pastor give 13 year old students a book about sex and dating written by a 17 year old. 

7. It’s good to keep in mind that, for all of purity culture’s failures, the anti-purity culture spaces in American society don’t seem to be much wiser at this either

On male friendship and the local church

Why do many churches struggle to fix the crisis of American male loneliness?

This piece by Ryan McCormick on the decline of spaces for male friendship is really spectacular. I’ve read so many essays on the topic, most of which are two and three times as long as Ryan’s, and almost none of them produce the genuine insight that Ryan did. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend stopping what you’re doing and fixing that.

I think a lot about friendship and masculinity nowadays. As you can probably guess, one reason is that it’s relevant to me personally. I struggle to make friends. Leaving college was for me, like many others, a turning point; the last several years have been almost exclusively given to work, marriage, parenting, etc. The richest time of friendship in the years I’ve been married were probably the almost 3 years we spent in Wheaton, where I enjoyed getting close to a few coworkers and a wonderful small group. COVID-19 put an anticlimactic end to that, and we ended up moving back to Kentucky last summer. I can’t say I haven’t struggled with the discouragement of losing those men.

Statistically a majority of American men my age are in the same boat, and it gets worse for men when they leave their 30s. Middle-aged men are one of the loneliest groups in the country, so much so that it’s being called a legitimate public health crisis. We probably won’t know for a while the effect that a pandemic and lockdowns had on this, but it’s not hard to guess: men aged 35-64 represented 40% of all suicide deaths before the pandemic.

All right, so: Time to recover a doctrine of the local church, right? Hold on. As Ryan points out in his piece, local churches are more often than not participants in the diminishing of “third spaces” rather than solutions. Here’s a quote from his essay:

It is widely noted in my own congregation that the women have their own small groups and yearly retreats; the men have practically nothing. As Anthony Bradley noted in a recent essay on this site, the American church (even when it is pastored or governed by men) functions mainly due to the involvement of women. Consequently, the social programs that churches typically offer adhere to the norms of contemporary female friendship, e.g., small groups, where church members share life updates and prayer requests. These groups are certainly immensely valuable to men. Yet while I’ve loved each small group I’ve belonged to, they have never produced durable male friendships. What is lacking in the church are groups where a common horizon can be forged between guys.

Let me add another element to this. It seems to me that in many evangelical church cultures, women’s ministry naturally encompasses producing opportunities for friendship in a way that men’s ministry doesn’t. For one thing, as Ryan points out, men’s ministries are often sparse. A typical church’s finite resources tend to go toward facilitating events for the dominant demographic, and throughout evangelicalism the dominant demographic is female. It’s not uncommon at all to find evangelical churches that have absolutely nothing offered for men, or if there is, it is an annual event, one in which a lot of pressure is placed on men to not miss since this will be the only event of its kind for a year.

For another thing, men’s ministry is highly programmed. In the recent past I’ve noticed that my wife will come home after a women’s ministry event and have much to share about the people she talked to and their casual conversations. This is fascinating to me because the majority of men’s events I’ve been to allow little or no space for this. What matters in men’s events is being productive: doing as much Bible study or “sharing” time as possible, and programming events and groups so that men are free to come, download the content, and leave efficiently.

The impression I’ve often got from many churches is that, when it comes to the men, gathering and friendship are thought about instrumentally. They are to be valued to the extent that they represent opportunities to do the “real” stuff of studying the Bible, or praying, or sharing testimonies/accountability questions. What I don’t find in many churches are opportunities for men to come together and form friendship in a natural way, without expectations of a spiritual performance or mastery of biblical content.

In other words, in many of the evangelical church contexts I’ve seen, women are invited into friendship and encouragement, while men are usually only invited into either Bible study or accountability. And some men receive this message loud and clear, and make a point to attend church programming without forming meaningful friendships on the margins; but because these men make an appearance at the events that “matter,” the church infers its men’s ministry is doing quite well.

It should go without saying that this doesn’t describe every church or perhaps even a majority. But it’s been a consistent enough pattern in my own experience that I’ve expressed these thoughts to various people throughout the last few years, and many of them say they’ve seen it as well.

So how does the local church address itself to the crisis of loneliness in American men? I think Ryan’s essay gives an important clue. In order for the local church to become a living solution rather than a cliche to throw out when you don’t know the answer, churches have to think hard about the material causes of isolation and loneliness among men. Are men lonely because there are not enough one day conferences and Bible studies? Or are they lonely because the environments and contexts in which male friendship thrives are disappearing? Does Christian formation for men depend primarily on how much Bible knowledge they are able to put on a sheet of paper, or how emotionally transparent they can be a weeknight gathering? Or does it depend on something deeper and harder to manufacture?

As with many things, if we’re not sure of the answer just yet, we can always identify what we have been doing and ask if it’s working. Well, is it?

Russell Moore Was Right

There is so much that can and must be said about today’s surreal events in Washington. I am not up to the task for most of them. But there is one thing I want to say, briefly, but forcefully.

Russell Moore was right about Donald Trump. The events of the last several weeks, and the last few days in particular, make this unquestionable. He was right when he said that evangelicals were making a Devil’s bargain by excusing or baptizing Trump’s debauched persona and wicked rhetoric. He was right when he said that character matters. He was right when he said that a leader like Trump is fundamentally untrustworthy and that this lack of honor cannot be papered over by self-reported political ideas.

Moore was also right when he said that Christians who championed Trump’s candidacy were putting themselves into a position to own his sins and lose moral legitimacy in the eyes of a world that hadn’t forgotten their “values” during the Clinton years. Moore was right, and the numerous images flooding in of people holding “Jesus Saves” signs while they cheer the storming of the Capitol prove that he was right. Just as sober minded conservatives are recognizing that their ideological movement owns this terrifying display of anarchy, any sober minded American Christian must recognize that the church in the US now owns it too. I’m not saying this is fair or logical. I’m saying it’s reality. And I’m saying we knew it was going to happen.

But for saying all this, Moore was not only debated and criticized, he was threatened, punished, and bullied. The infrastructure of the Southern Baptist Convention failed to defend one of its most respected entity heads and kowtowed to the voices of churches and leaders who should have been led, not deferred to. Moore was not the only evangelical Baptist who warned us about Donald Trump, but he was frequently the most consistent, most visible, and most Bible and gospel-centered voice. He didn’t just talk about the politics. He talked about the church. It was the church that Moore feared would buckle under the moral sludge of an unqualified President. But it was the church that attributed the most outrageously false motives to Moore. It was the church that told itself Moore was a closet liberal. It was the church that found more trustworthiness in an unrepentant, twice-divorced Playboy billionaire than in one of its own pastors.

And now, tonight, family members text me that people in their churches were at the protests, bragging about how the “capitol was ours now.” Church members. Not professional protesters, not QAnon cultists. ChristiansChristians with Bibles, and Sunday school classes. Christians storming the halls of Congress on behalf of a lie, peddled by a lover of lies. 

And I’m sitting here, reading these texts and seeing these Bible verse placards, and thinking, “Moore was right.” And somebody needs to say so.

Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned tonight, it’s that not saying something can carry a higher cost than you ever thought. 

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. 

Which Enemy? Which Doorstep?

It’s impossible to read this piece by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and not think that anti-racist activism is in serious trouble of going wildly off the rails. I would encourage any reader who feels invested in advocating for racial justice to read Friedersdorf’s long retelling of a complete meltdown inside a very progressive New York school board meeting. It’s an astonishing narrative that gets more disheartening the longer it goes on.

On the other hand, it’s also impossible to listen or read to the testimonies of many pastors across the US, especially the South, and not think that American churches are in serious trouble of fomenting a deep and deeply spiritual racism. That’s disorienting. Which narrative should I buy: the narrative about elite progressive institutions slouching toward a woke form of segregation? Or the narrative about a conservative evangelical culture that appears unwilling to preach the Bible at its own culture of white supremacy and Neo-Confederate ancestral worship? Which is the real problem?

It depends on where you are.

A media age upends many things, but one of the first is place. If TV and radio dislodged political awareness from its local roots and biased it toward “the nation,” the internet burned the root entirely. In the world shaped by the internet all eyes are trained on that which is national and global. Narratives are useful to the degree they paint in broad strokes and give a sense of omnipresent problems. What most of us mean by “culture” is huge. We mean millions of people, saying and making and doing something on a massive scale. Our heightened consciousness of this kind of large-scale culture is almost totally engineered by media technologies.

And in that heightened consciousness, we tend to confuse what is most depicted with what is most real. Our concern is disproportionately directed toward things that loom large in the media hive, because that’s where our awareness of The World comes from. This is what I mean when I say that many evangelicals often engage culture reactively, from behind. Here’s the way I put it last year:

 [E]ngaging culture by centering one’s intellectual orbit around what comes out of elite journalism can lead Christians to perpetually express the public implications of our faith in the direction of people least likely to heed our message, and on current events least likely to be urgent in actual churches. In other words, if your idea of culture is dictated to you by The Atlantic, you might think the most important thing you can talk about as a Christian is why polyamory is sinful, or why Drag Queen Story Hour is a moral outrage. Assuming, though, that your local church is unexceptional, the odds are incredibly good that suicide, depression, smartphone addiction, and sexless marriages are much bigger issues for you than those. If however the agenda for Christian thinking is being set by elite media, concentrated in affluent coastal bastions of progressivism, the witness of evangelicalism is always from behind—reactive—and never from ahead.

Here’s the thing: You very well may be in a cultural context in which something like Drag Queen Story Hour is the most pressing moral issue on the docket. You might, for example, be an employee of public library that is considering hosting such an event. You might be the parent of a child who unexpectedly attended one. You might be a pastor of a church in a very progressive city where members are being asked for their opinions on it. But my suspicion is that Christians who talk most voluminously about DQSH are not in any of these scenarios. The actual life context they’re in is one dominated by anxious and depressed teens, porn addicts, dysfunctional marriages, 14 year olds being pressured to send naked pictures of themselves…and racism.

I’m guess I’m mostly talking to myself here, because when I read Friedersdorf’s piece I come away convinced that much anti-racist activism is going to create enemies out of allies and drill resentments and mistrust deeper into American culture. But when I talk on the phone with a friend who was fired by his church for saying that George Floyd should not have been killed, I don’t feel this way. I think evangelicals have failed on the topic of race so spectacularly that their failure has soaked through the fabric of society to the point of tearing. So which thought is true? Are the excesses of woke-ism going to tear us apart, or will the failure to address racism?

Well, both. Both theses have evidence to support them, and both are compatible. My point is that two things can be true at the same time, but in different places and because of different things. When a New York school system meeting finds members outraged that a white man can hold a black infant, that tells us something important about that meeting, what dynamics were present, and what that outrage may mean for other people close to those dynamics. It’s completely legitimate to infer that something in that meeting was broken: either, as Friedersdorf argues, the interpersonal laws of charity and goodwill, or, as someone like John McWhorter would argue, the actual beliefs about race and justice. We can come away from reading about this meeting dutifully concerned that a harmful ideology reigns among some New York school boards.

But that truth doesn’t cancel out others. We can also come away from watching Republican primaries dutifully concerned that a major political party appears to have surrendered wholly to racist conspiracy mongering. We can come away from watching American evangelicalism horrified at the vacuum of prophetic leadership on racism and public justice. From where I write, this is the pressing issue for most Bible-preaching ministers. The majority of pastors reading this blog have churches that are probably not reading White Fragility and How to Be Antiracist. Those congregations, especially the men, are more likely reading Breitbart and hateful email newsletter blasts from “Christian Youth Brigade.” The enemy of the doorstep is not the same enemy as the one that sits on a New York school board. We fail to see this only because we look with one eye closed.

Gentle and Lowly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Sentences and Movements

Explaining what you mean is a virtue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Close the Churches

A response to R.R. Reno.

R.R. Reno writes from a Roman Catholic perspective when he bemoans the closure of churches and suspension of Mass during coronavirus, but I’ve seen enough similar sentiment from Protestants to know he’s not alone. HIs argument however is both rife with logical fallacy and lacking in thorough biblical reflection.

First, the either/or fallacy pops up quite a bit in the piece. Consider this line:

Whatever our judgments about public policy, church leaders need to resist the temptation to imitate the (for them correct) worldliness of those who work for public health. The Church’s concern should be to sustain the spiritual health of those entrusted to her care.

It feels like that final sentence is missing an ending. It sounds like Reno means to imply this concluding clause: “Instead of the physical health of those entrusted to her care.” I think I’m on solid ground in supposing that hidden finish, because in the next paragraph Reno writes: “In this environment the faithful need spiritual truths from their church leaders, not recapitulations of public health bulletins and exhortations to wash their hands.” The pitting of spiritual nourishment against physical care is a false dilemma that is explicitly rejected by the apostle James, and has been rejected throughout Christian history by the scores of believers who have served as evangelistic doctors, nurses, caretakers, not to mention the Christians that established such global relief organizations as the Red Cross and Salvation Army. To suggest that churches need to ignore the risks of serious illness for believers (the most serious risks being for the elderly and already infirm) so they can “sustain spiritual health” is by extension to claim that individual believers should likewise ignore the risks, and that is a bewildering claim.

I think it’s better, both biblically and ecclesiologically, to say that the gospel is an intact gospel. An intact gospel is one not divided against itself, as if there were “good news” for your soul but bad news or no news at all for your body. Indeed, Scripture relentlessly portrays the Lord as a healer (Psalm 103). The promise of Christ’s resurrection is that he will one day give life to our mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11). God loves the human body and expects us to share that love. In a season of pandemic, love of the body means taking a virus seriously, at least seriously enough to not present others with a choice between faithfulness to the Lord and protecting communities from a potentially fatal disease.

It’s quite likely that not every church in the US need cancel services right now, but there are many that do need to. This is not kowtowing to fear or the supposed preeminence of the magistrate. For churches in communities that have been visited by coronavirus, canceling physical gatherings is by far the most effective way of protecting both congregants and non-congregants from the illness. This isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. Perhaps protecting people from sickness at the cost of the worship service sounds like elevating the physical above the spiritual, but it’s not, not anymore than a man rescuing a trapped animal on the Sabbath was elevating the economic over the spiritual.

It would be an inappropriate elevation of the physical if churches were to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and say, “Actually, this whole livestream thing is just so much easier and safer and cost-effective. We’ll be going all-online now!” All those adjectives are true, yet the church exists to be physically gathered together in a way believers cannot neglect (Heb. 10:25). But suspending physical gatherings while the world withstands a brutal but temporary viral epidemic can, and I think must, acknowledge that something truly has been lost, even with a livestream. In this way the church can testify to the already-but-not-yet: in sitting under the preaching of the word online even as we yearn for the day we can come together again without members under threat of pandemic, and yearn even more for the day that death is dead forever and every tear is wiped away.

I understand the discomfort with doing church online. I think there should be some discomfort with it. But the coronavirus crisis need not be a referendum on the goodness of technology. It can instead be a referendum on the absolute goodness of our embodied selves and our embodied churches: of physical people, with faces and moods and hungers and stories and burdens. In a sense both Reno and the e-church enthusiast are making the same mistake. They are failing to properly value the humanity of Christ’s body, one through preference for technology and the other for neglect of care. Sometimes the best way to honor complementary truths is to not have a perfectly clean solution.

To this end, I would commend to you the letter that my former pastor, Greg Gilbert, wrote to the members of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, right before the suspended service last weekend. Here are two paragraphs that will encourage you:

Brothers and sisters, Christians should never be motivated by fear, not when we serve the Sovereign Lord of the Universe. But there’s a crucial difference between fear and prudence, and in this case love for our neighbors compels us to join our nation’s extraordinary efforts to minimize contact between people in order to slow the spread of this virus and “flatten the curve” of the pandemic.  We are not cancelling our services because we ourselves, as Christians, are afraid to get sick or even afraid to die.  God forbid!  “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  Rather, we are cancelling because we believe it is imperative for us to be a part of our society’s response to this virus that, at best, will be serious for the most vulnerable, and, at worst, could put even more people at risk by creating a severe and sudden spike in demand on our health care system.  So don’t be afraid or fearful, brothers and sisters.  Read God’s Word, remember God’s promises, help those who are needy, and trust in God.  He is sovereign over all, and he loves you dearly.

Brothers and sisters, thank you again for your help and understanding in these matters.  These are not easy decisions, but we think they are the best way for us to love our neighbor in a critical time.  And again, just like we’ve said before, don’t be fearful about this.  Be prudent and wise, but not afraid; there’s a profound difference between the two.  The fact is, this fallen world has always been a dangerous place.  We as Christians know this, we have always known this, the Bible teaches us to expect this, and there is a wonderful fear-smashing confidence in knowing that our God is sovereign over it all.  So let’s live our lives, let’s be wise and careful, and at the same time, let’s rest in the hands of our sovereign Lord, who is working all things together for the good of those who love him.

On the Theological Backchannel

We’re not the same people offline as we are online. That’s why we’re online in the first place.

If you’ve never read Freddie DeBoer’s essay “Of Course, There’s the Backchannel,” read it right now. Particularly if you’re somewhat interested in the disorienting culture of social media, the essay is a fascinating reflection on the lengths that modern people go to, especially politically conscious people, to craft an online identity that may be totally at odds with who they are offline. If you’ve never experienced this in yourself or in someone else, you probably will before too long. Read the essay all the way to the amazing ending.

I’ve thought about Freddie’s story quite a bit since reading the essay a couple years ago. I don’t know that we fully appreciate just how powerfully life on the internet affects how we feel and think about everything. Because it is largely self-contained and requires no physicality or length of time to mediate it, online conversation often becomes its “own” thing. I don’t know that anyone who uses words online regularly is exactly the same person online as offline; there are probably deeply rooted psychological and epistemological reasons why the technology itself splits personalities. But I do know that some people’s online/offline personas are more different than others, and similarly, there are topics of theology, or ethics, life issues, etc., that seem to yield a lot of this kind of digital double-takes.

What I mean is that there are certain issues, certain “conversations” that go a lot differently in the world of digital publishing, social media, blogging, etc, than they do while you’re, say, talking to people in small group or at work or over coffee. It’s as if the ecosystem of online writing rewards a particular way of talking about things that people pick up on, yet often don’t fully (or at all) translate into personal terms. If you ask a question on Twitter or in a column, you’ll get one answer. If you ask in your living room, you’ll get a different answer.. from the same people!

Again, this is all personal observation. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting what’s going on here. I’m not throwing down a #take about any particular person and/or group. It’s just something I’ve noticed. Let me offer a couple examples:

Example #1: Singleness

If your primary exposure to the thoughts of single-but-wanting-marriage 20 and 30somethings is online magazines, blogs, podcasts, and social media posts, you probably think that most single people in evangelical churches today really want married people to stop trying to pair them up; to not see them as “single” people, i.e., people with a “need” that should be met; and to give them more responsibility and ministry opportunities. In other words, the evangelical online perspective is, “Stop looking at my singleness, and start thinking of me and acting toward me like I don’t have a personal gap that needs to be filled.”

What I’ve noticed though is that almost all of the single 20 and 30somethings that I’ve talked to in the past few years, the same time frame in which I’ve seen the above narrative really catch fire in magazines and blogs, are quite upfront about their desire to be married. In community groups they talk about the struggle of seeing friends married off through the years. They admit loneliness and seem to perk up when someone says, “Hey I might know somebody.” They’re active in ministry. They do resist the bias against single people that can creep into evangelical churches, but they don’t resent the leadership of the church being overwhelmingly married folks. That’s what they want for themselves. It’s not that they’re deficient people, it’s that they have a desire that is unmet; they’re OK with people they trust and love knowing this, and praying and encouraging accordingly.

Example #2: Masculinity

If you make the mistake of Googling the phrase “biblical masculinity,” there’s no telling when your loved ones will discover your corpse, with forehead gashed through blunt force trauma of hitting yourself with your computer monitor. Consider two common, competing #takes in the Christian online world about masculinity. The first take is the “alpha male” crowd, the guys who say you’re not a real man if you don’t spit craft beer at the libs. They’re all about how “Big Eva” has emasculated Christian men. There’s a weird compulsion in this crowd to make everything about being a man, as if one could forget he’s a man and in that moment would cease to be one. The second take is the sophisticated, urbane, literary take on masculinity, which is that it basically doesn’t exist and that any guy who is concerned about becoming a Christian man is furthering the patriarchy and is probably just cosplaying John Wayne on his way to vote for Trump.

These two groups dominate online conversation about manhood. Yet are they actually representative of the guys who come to your church on Sunday morning? Of course not. And what you find out is that the lives and marriages and parenting of some of the guys who have the “edgiest” things to say about masculinity online are not all that edgy. The wife of the dude who chirps about the emasculation of evangelicalism from his blog works two jobs so that he can do his Masters degree full-time. The “masculinity is a construct of the patriarchy” guy soon acknowledges that he needs more resources about parenting boys. I’ve seen first-hand this disconnect between what tribes people sort themselves into and the actual lives they lead. Don’t hear me saying that gender roles are an unimportant issue. What I am saying is that the real-life dynamics of love, marriage, sex, parenting, and friendship are not very Tweetable.

Online Identity

The above are examples of the theological backchannel. They are genres of evangelical writing where the most prominent kinds of perspectives seem weirdly at odds with what you see offline. In DeBoer’s original piece, he uses the political/journalistic backchannel mainly as evidence that people are scared of sharing what they truly believe, since their membership in certain in-groups (which may be a lucrative membership career-wise) depends on their having the right opinions. I’ve seen a similar thing at work in the theological backchannel, particularly with how often and gleefully the genetic fallacy is deployed to show why person in tribe X is wrong about issue Y, because people in tribe X are always wrong. In the world of ideas the universe is partitioned neatly between people who are right and people who are wrong, and often the writing that follows simply seeks to establish more “turf” for all the players.

But there is an identity aspect to it as well. I think we’re just now beginning to realize that for the emerging adult generation, the internet is not simply an activity, it’s a mode of existence. That’s why we’re getting so exhausted by it. There’s no hobby that drains you like online life because online life isn’t a hobby, it’s an ecosystem in which everyone is actively trying to construct a new habitus. We’re not the same people offline that we are online. That’s the whole reason we’re online in the first place. The question then is not “Why is there a backchannel?” The question is, as time and connectivity and epistemology continue to transform, which one is actually the backchannel—online or off?