The Outer Ring

On learning wisdom from the Wrong Kind of People.

The more I read C.S. Lewis’s address on “The Inner Ring,” the more I think it is one of the most important, spiritually helpful things he ever said. It’s not only that he puts his powers of observation to a vice many of us go for long stretches of life—maybe even our whole lives—without even noticing in ourselves. No, not just that. Rather, as is typical of Lewis, it’s as if his thinking about a particular thing in a particular place for a particular audience somehow anticipates the reality of readers 70 years in the future…readers removed about as far as possible from Lewis’s own intellectual and historic context.

What Lewis describes in “The Inner Ring” is, I think, the most consequential characteristic of two institutions of American life: Social media and politics. Without inner ringism I honestly don’t know if things like Twitter or Instagram could exist. The entire infrastructure of those digital platforms depends on the fact that people will do and say and approve of what they see others doing and saying and approving of. Further, social media’s effectiveness is directly dependent on how concentrated inner ringism can become in small doses: a hashtag here, a viral witticism there. The sum of social media is an ambient cry of millions of users saying, “See? I’m one of you!”

There’s a flip side to inner-ringism, though. Lewis’s address mentions it only by implication, but especially in American political discourse, this flip side has a powerful and resilient life of its own. Call it “The Outer Ring,” or outer ringism. The Outer Ring is the logical negative of the Inner Ring. If a person’s behavior or ideas can be conditioned by the desire to belong to a certain group, then the desire to not belong to a different group yields a similar conditioning, but in the opposite direction. Outer ringism is what you see when voters instinctively distrust new information because of who appears to be citing it, or when journalists, weary of thinking, quote-tweet something with, “This is something [person the tribe doesn’t like] would say.”

In his excellent little book How to Think, Alan Jacobs directs readers to a blog post by Slate Star Codex author Scott Alexander. In “I Can Tolerate Everything Except the Outgroup,” Alexander observes that people who score themselves very high on virtues like kindness, open-mindedness, progressive values, and empathy can behave very differently if the recipient of their behavior is the Wrong Kind of Person. Alexander got an illuminating education in this when some of his social media followers rebuked him for expressing relief at the death of Osama Bin Laden, and then those same followers posted obscenely jubilant content a few days later after the death of conservative British icon Margaret Thatcher. Alexander concludes:

“I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous” And that was when something clicked for me…if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.

Of course, it’s not exactly a bold take for a conservative evangelical like me to suggest that progressives aren’t all that progressive. But lest I comfort the comfortable, every single word Alexander writes about the progressives on his social media feeds could apply to more than a few Bible-believing, culture-engaging personalities. Jacobs offers two vivid examples of this from Christian history in How to Think, and I’ve written at length about how “worldview formation” can often undermine thoughtfulness by condensing a Christian’s thought-forms into Good Tribe and Bad Tribe. Hence, evangelicals who are skeptical of vaccinations because the government or Planned Parenthood is in favor of them. When all you see are connections, you can’t see anything clearly enough.

What Lewis understood is that inner ringism is a spiritual sickness, not merely an ideological one. “Of all the passions,” Lewis says, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” The same is of course true of outer ring-ism. Lewis has in mind the person who is seduced into cruelty or immorality by the promise of belonging, but it’s just as easy to imagine the person seduced into dishonesty or even apostasy by an unwillingness to grant his critics legitimacy.

A complementarian, for example, might so cultivate a distrust and dislike of people who disagree with him on gender roles that he downplays or even ignores when they have an important point to make about abuse. This might be because he’s committing the genetic fallacy and thinks that an egalitarian worldview is invariably tilted toward error. Or it might be because he himself has endured so much opposition or unkindness from feminists that granting a point simply feels like handing his enemy one more idea by which to trap him. In either case, these impulses are unlikely to be checked by his personal inner ring, precisely because our inner rings tend to shape our outer rings. The result is a complementarian who’s right about 1 Timothy but wrong about himself—a trade-off that won’t show up on the debate floor, only in his soul. (Prov. 14:12)

Outer ringism is a spiritual sickness because it, no less than the spirit which abandons the weekly worship gathering, stiff-arms humility, reinforces unearned confidences, and makes us unlikely to receive a word in season. Of the inner ring, Lewis writes:

Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. 

The same is true for the outer ring. Once you’ve settled on deciding who the Wrong Kind of People are and why you won’t hear anything they’ve got to say, eventually all those good reasons for blacklisting them will magically seem to apply to more and more. The group you dismissed for their fundamentalist attitude will give way to the folks you reject for their strange hobbies. You’ll find yourself more and more instinctively looking for why that every so subtly convicting thing you heard from that one preacher or that one woman in church was not legitimate, because after all of course they’d say that. As this habit takes root you’ll eventually be unable to hear whatever you haven’t heard before, and, as Lewis says, you’ll find yourself always only looking.

The worst news is that, since Lewis spoke those ominous words, the invention of the Internet has guaranteed that those of us who only ever look can always have something to look at. Never have inner and outer rings been available in such large quantities.

My guess is the only real way to fight the allure of the outer ring is to stop curating one’s own mind for half a minute, and look at the people that a sovereign God has put right in front of you, right now. Unless you are in a truly exceptional situation, the humans in your direct eyesight are diverse enough that some may be what you feel are the Wrong Kind of People. Those are the people whom our Maker has commanded us to love and teach and learn from. Community can be received, but it’s the outer ring that must be stocked.

Engaging Culture From Ahead, Not From Behind

Why Christians shouldn’t let elite journalism set the agenda anymore.

Let me describe an experience that has become very common for me over the years.

I’ll navigate to a well-trafficked Christian blog or publication. The major headlines are almost exclusively devoted to other headlines, from a secular newspaper, journal, or magazine. You see, the entire purpose of this Christian site is to recapitulate what else has been published in mainstream journalism, and to offer a theological or political commentary on it. Whether the topic is “throuples” in Manhattan, the latest ritual at Burning Man, or a tenured professor’s tweets, the conversation is always started by the consensus of prestigious journalism institutions on what we need to be talking about.

Based on my experience, this is what a lot of evangelicals mean by “engaging culture.” Like the cast and crew commentary on the Special Features section of a DVD, this mode of engaging culture adds Christian words to a preexisting perception of the world. Here’s what the editors of The New York Times, CNN, The Atlantic, and BBC want you to be thinking about. “Here’s commentary from a Christian point of view to accompany your thinking about these things. Now you can go and think!”

There is certainly something valuable in offering believers this kind of resource. Especially for Christians whose career puts them in close contact with thoughtful unbelievers, being able to intelligently answer questions has massive evangelistic implications. It’s also true that many American Christians lack the training these resources offer.

But lately I’ve wondered whether something is insufficient, not merely with the kind of commentary being offered but with the genre of writing itself. Does this kind of cultural engagement presume something potentially untrue—namely, that Christians should be thinking heavily on the kind of stories featured in the pages of elite media? Behind that question lies another, perhaps more complex one: Does what we read in the pages and watch on the screens of American media actually represent our “culture,” or does it just represent the ambitions and imaginations of media moguls?

The 2016 presidential election raised serious doubts among many that mainstream American journalists understood their own nation. In fact, in the shocking aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, many of them said so. Trump’s victory was unthinkable to any whose vision of society was shaped by the stories and ideas promulgated by national media outlets like The Washington Post or Forbes. Some self-reflective members of the media concluded that their work culture was insular and severely disconnected from the concerns and convictions of a huge chunk of American voters. I think that’s a reasonable conclusion.

Evangelicals have sometimes thought of “culture” as a monolith, a coherent ambience that is the sum total of Hollywood, education, the bestseller lists, and journalism. In my experience it’s common for Christians to talk of “the” culture without any effort to specify whose culture is being talked about. This is evident in something I’ve talked about here before: The tendency of a lot of Christian literature to offer over-generalized aphorisms and observations that don’t take into account how different people in different places need to hear different things.

We often talk about purity culture as if it there is only one kind of purity culture, and every single evangelical in America experiences that singular purity culture in the same way. But even a minute’s reflection will reveal that to be spectacularly untrue. Evangelicals raised in rigid, homeschooling environments have a particular experience with the doctrine of chastity that another Christian with a background in nominal religious culture won’t necessarily have. One church in evangelical Christianity uses Scripture to shame and brutalize teen girls over their sin, while another church sweeps the adultery of the minister or the pornography of an elder under the rug. “Culture” is multifaceted.

If culture is not a singular, omnipresent thing, then it makes sense to suppose that perhaps it needn’t always be engaged at face value. Here’s what I mean: What evangelicals mean by “culture” when they talk about engaging culture is in a very real sense a product, something created by an individual or a group and traceable to them. It is therefore a mistake to suppose that whatever ends up in the longform section of The New York Times necessarily represents “where culture is going.” The longform section of the NYT isn’t created by “culture,” it’s created by individuals and groups that want to manufacture something: an idea, a fad, etc.

The reason this matters is that engaging 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.

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What would it look like to engage culture from ahead rather than behind? Simply put, it means fostering Christian publications and ministries and writers who are able to think at a theological and anthropological level rather than merely a journalistic one.

A great example of the potential for Christians to set the intellectual agenda for others is technology. Secular society for the most part sees nothing at all moral in the newest developments from Silicon Valley. But there is a growing number of secular Americans who nonetheless feel that something is being lost in the omnipresence of screens. This is a tremendous opportunity for Christians to supply unbelievers with the language they seek but lack. Christians believe in the inherent goodness of the created world, but also in the indelible tendency of fallen humans to curve the resources of this created world toward sinful, selfish ends. The reason many Americans feel alienated by the technocratic culture is that we are not designed like robots, but in the image of a relational, rational God with real presence. To be disconnected from the physical world is to become less like the God in whose image we are made, thus, to become less human.

On the issue of technology and human flourishing, Christians have the ideas and categories that explain why things are the way they are. And here’s the upshot: Almost everyone in your church, neighborhood, school, workplace, or family has a smartphone. Almost everyone is connected to the liturgies of the internet. Compare that to how many people you personally know who are sending their kids to Drag Queen Story Hour, and you have an idea what is actually relevant to your culture. True, The New Yorker is much more interested in genderqueer libraries. That doesn’t mean you should be.

Take another example: Depression and suicide. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that anxiety, loneliness, and self-harm are among the most pressing issues facing believers in the West today. The numbers are staggering, the testimonies are too numerous to count, and the severity of the problem is only rising. People are dying of despair. Lots of people. People in your town, in your church. Maybe in your own home.

You’ll get a different answer as to why this is depending on whether you listen to economists, sociologists, doctors, activists, or journalists. Shouldn’t those who believe in a God of life, a God who puts the lonely in families, a God who wipes away tears and will live inside sinners like an explosive spring of water—shouldn’t we be setting the agenda here? Deaths of despair in a rich, affluent time are not surprising to people who know the real condition of the human heart. Are we speaking to this the way we could? Or does the lack of political leverage to this story make us bored, uninterested, or even apathetic? Sometimes I wonder if labeling everything as “culture war” makes us blind to actual death.

The point is that by engaging culture from behind, we shrink our world and our mission field. Being unable to tell the difference in urgency between the carryings on of coastal trust fund socialites and the silent cries of those sitting right next to us is a colossal miscalculation. It is, actually, failing to engage culture at all. It doesn’t “engage” because it usually fails to persuade (and honestly isn’t meant to). And it mistakenly identifies as “culture” what could probably more accurately be described as “anticulture.”

Engaging culture from ahead begins with a careful posture of learning and discernment. It prioritizes life and death rather than language and signaling. And it seeks to speak into a specific need rather than a news cycle. It’s not as lucrative, and it’s frankly not as easy. But it’s obedient.

A Complementarian Crisis

The Biblical vision of gender offers real joy and flourishing. The question is, do we?

A couple years ago Ray Ortlund memorably described the typical lifespan of an American evangelical church as “Movement, monument, then mausoleum.” The early years are the movement, as enthusiasm and purposefulness characterize the church’s charter members and leaders. If the movement finds success, over time the church tends to lose its missional passion and instead devotes most of its energy to preserving itself against the sands of time. The result is an insular, nostalgic culture that can be stirring when excitement is highest but spends most of the time curved in on its own identity. If this habit goes unbroken long enough, eventually the church simply runs out of people who remember “the good old days” and has nothing and no one to replace them with.

Many evangelicals, including yours truly, can personally attest to how true to life this narrative is. You don’t have to go far in America to find a large, beautiful, ornate, empty church. Ironically, though many churches have abandoned the old practice of keeping a cemetery on their grounds, a sobering number of congregations have become their own kind of cemetery, where evangelism and community lie interred. While it might be oversimplified, the movement-monument-mausoleum narrative is certainly true of enough.

That’s at least one reason why many evangelical complementarians, like me, are a bit uneasy nowadays. What’s true of the institutions and movements explicitly commissioned by Jesus (churches) is doubly true of the institutions and movements that are mostly just extra, and in some cases the downward slopes are steeper outside congregational walls. As someone who is solidly convinced that the Bible teaches complementary gender theology over and against both secular feminism and Christian egalitarianism, the complementarian spectacle has not been pleasant of late.

Let me describe the spectacle as I see it.

First, evangelical complementarianism, based on the messaging and activity of its most important institutions and advocates, seems to currently lack a compelling identity. The debate over the Trinity a few years back was an impressive exchange of massively important theological ideas between gifted and faithful scholars, but it’s not at all clear to me what, exactly, that dialogue accomplished. There seems (at least to me, an interested layperson) to be no better consensus on issues such as the eternal functional subordination of the Son (EFS) now than there was in the smoke.

Such a lack of closure on what appears to be the most significant theological moment for complementarianism in the last ten years exemplifies what feels like a broad uncertainty over what evangelical complementarianism is: a position (on which issues?), a movement (including which people?), a dialogue (between whom?), a response (to what?), etc.  Hence, the feeling of some that current complementarianism, lacking a clear center of gravity, has turned its polemic energy on itself.

That is the second concerning trend. The uncertainty lingering after the trinity debate has led (at least partly) to a widening gap within complementarianism, between the “thin” and the “thick.” Again, the terms are maddeningly unclear. Thin complementarians appear to be mostly responding to arguments from divine ordering and natural law that bind consciences on questions like what jobs and roles women can have in the public square. The thick comps seem to view at least openness to such gendered ordering of the public square as integral to an authentically biblical theology of male and female.

It’s important to acknowledge the significance of this intramural rift for complementarianism writ large. The complementarianism of the Danvers days was explicitly presented as a response to evangelical feminism, e.g., the ordination of women in Christian churches and the downplaying of male-female distinctions in culture and politics. Most self-described “thin” complementarians accept male-only eldership and reject both same-sex marriage and transgender ideology (by contrast, a significant percentage of self-identified egalitarians seem to be LGBT and transgender affirming). Thus, the current rift between thin and thick complementarianism is not a rift over the core content of classic complementarianism as it has been most often articulated, but a rift borne of a newer, more active search to chart the true implications of this theology. No matter whether you identify as thick or thin, the biggest point here is where complementarian energies are being expended, and divided—not so much over the ordering of the home and church, but in the potential implications for public theology outside.

It’s certainly true that the various disputes between the thin and thick camps matter, and should not be dismissed or avoided. If nothing else, pastors and church leaders should define themselves as clearly as possible to avoid potentially catastrophic illusions of unity on issues that have real implications for the congregation. Granted that, I think it’s fair to wonder if the thin vs thick faceoff is doomed by the law of diminishing return. It’s hard to imagine a robust, coherent complementarianism with lots of different splinter cells, servicing competing evangelical sub-tribes that share digital space at places like TGC but work behind the scenes to undermine one another. Perhaps thin vs thick is not such a harbinger. Perhaps it’s a watershed moment that will yield a liberating amount of theological clarity and solidarity. Perhaps not, too.

If certain dynamics continue unchanged, there’s reason to worry about the above scenario coming true. In fact, it’s already started to happen. This is the third concerning trend: a surplus of “lumping,” a frustrating infatuation with ephemeral social media trends, and growing suspicion that what’s being talked about isn’t what’s really being talked about.

One vivid example took place just last week at the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention. After giving the ERLC’s annual report, president Russell Moore took questions from the floor. One of the questions was a pitifully obvious attempt at a gotcha: The delegate quoted an old piece by Dr. Moore that vigorously asserted a complementarian position on churches that allow preaching by women. “Do you still believe this,” the delegate asked, and only some of the members present would have been able to hear the dog-whistle for a condemnation of Beth Moore.

Of course, one question from one delegate at the Southern Baptist Convention does not a narrative make. Still, the Beth Moore “moment” that swept through large portions of influential complementarian social media was a disconcerting episode—not because a woman’s preaching on Mother’s Day is a good idea complementarians should just get over, but because the stakes of public complementarian theology are much bigger than subtweets and a Hallmark holiday.

These disconcerting trends have one possible, unifying explanation. It could be that the evangelical complementarian vision has pivoted from its focused, theologically hefty “movement” phase, and is currently more concerned with recreating its old polemical energy. In this hypothesis, what the “monument” phase looks like for complementarians is an attempt to re-win a war already won, regardless that evangelical feminism has largely collapsed fully into the mainline denominations and has, for the most part, become one thread in a thoroughly non-evangelical garment. Without the same clearly delineated purpose and target, a restless complementarianism turns on itself and becomes a monument to its former role and rhetoric.

Assuming this is at least partly true, what now? I go back to Ortlund’s original blog post, because the path he offers churches to renewal and rejuvenation rings true in more ways than one:

The responsibility of a church’s leaders is to discern when their movement is starting to level off as a monument. It is at this crucial point that they must face themselves honestly and discover why they have lost their edge, go into repentance and return to the costly commitments that made them great to begin with. They may need to deconstruct much of what they have become, which is painful and embarrassing. But if the leaders will have the humility, clarity, and courage to do this, their church will go into renewal and re-launch as a movement once more. Jesus will become real again, people will be helped again, and those bold, humble leaders will never regret the price they paid.

Unpacking this rich paragraph, I count several steps forward for a renewed complementarian vision:

1) Complementarians don’t need to agree about all the reasons in order to acknowledge that the movement needs help and revitalization. From #MeToo to the Trinity to trolls, complementarian culture needs to honestly assess its current health.

2) Complementarians need to repent of the role that any spiritual pride or anger may have played in the decay of the movement, especially that which may have caused us to deflect faithful criticism and compromise with un-Christian means to accomplish (in our view) Christian ends.

3) Complementarians should enter a season of self-examination, consciously pressing pause on polemics in order to define, clearly, what we believe Jesus is calling us to be and do. There needs to be a “return to fundamentals” in theology, resisting temptations to answer challenges with slippery slope angst and credential-checking and instead going ad fontes, to the heart of the full biblical narrative on gender and God’s image.

4) Complementarians should pray urgently that the Holy Spirit would be discernible to outsiders, including all His fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These aren’t the ingredients to heavy blog traffic or snazzy headlines, but they are the only fruits that matter to the Judge of all the earth.

I don’t believe complementarianism is a generational fad. Rather, I think it is the best, most serious attempt thus yet to make sense of the Bible’s radically counter-cultural ideas about maleness and femaleness. Biblical complementarity, like biblical sexuality, offers deep joy and real flourishing. The challenge, as always, is to resist making a theology that isn’t about us, really about us, and in so doing stand squarely between the world and the joy and flourishing offered by our risen Savior. Of course, Christ doesn’t let even mausoleums get in the way of his mission. The question is, will we?

Christian Wisdom Amid the Gurus

Looking for Christian wisdom in the bestsellers.

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

Practices of Love in an Unimoon Era

Christianity offers something better than dating yourself.

This morning I read the following passage in Justin Whitmel Earley’s excellent new book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction:

One of my favorite cultural critics, Ken Myers, argues that the kind of atheism we experience in America today is not a conclusion but a mood…If secularism is not a conclusion but a mood, we cannot disrupt it with an argument. We must disrupt it with a presence.

The truth is that we live in a culture where most people are remarkably resistant to hearing verbal proclamations of the gospel. What’s more, it seems some of them really can’t hear it. We not longer share a common vocabulary for communicating whether truth exists, what can be called good, and what love means. But that is okay. God is not alarmed. Our secular age is not a barrier to evangelism; it is simply the place of evangelism.

Ever since returning from China, I’ve had an abiding interest in asking this question: “How is it that the West can be re-evangelized?” One of the reasons I’m so compelled by the life of habit is that I see habits as a way of light in an age of darkness. Cultivating a life of transcendent habits means that our ordinary ways of living should stand out in our culture, dancing like candles on a dark mantle. As Madeline L’Engle once wrote, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe . . . but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

Though I think this passage risks short changing the value of intellectual argument, the overall point being made is, I believe, extremely important. Continue reading “Practices of Love in an Unimoon Era”

The Present and Future of Christian Blogging

Interacting with Tim Challies on the future of Christian blogging

A few days ago Tim Challies published a helpful article that described three different kinds of blogging. The upshot of his piece was that Christian blogging, especially the evangelical kind, has to a great extent been reduced to one variety: The large, multi-authored “ministry blog.” Tim’s observation is that, whereas a decade ago there were lots of individual bloggers publishing regularly on their own platforms, today most of those bloggers have given up writing in their own space and are instead pitching and being published by the large ministry blogs. Interestingly, Tim then makes a case that this trend actually constitutes a decline of blogging and the ascent of something (resembling a traditional journalism industry) to replace it:

What is essential to those ministry sites (the ability to solicit, accept, reject, and edit articles) contradicts an essential element of a blog (the ability to write without editorial control). Where blogging is a medium by and for amateurs, ministry blogs have a paradigm that is far more professional. Again, they have their place but, while they may displace blogs, they don’t quite replace them.

Tim’s concern is that the decline of personal blogging signals the loss of what blogging empowers among writers: The ability to freely and quickly exchange ideas without editors or publications’s “filtering” the work. So then, the displacement of personal blogging spaces by large ministry blogs brings us full circle back to the days of traditional periodicals, where editors and Boards of Directors and a handful of professional people dictate the writing agenda, select and edit pieces, and condemn most voices to obscurity.

Let me submit a qualified agreement with Tim’s concern. I think Tim’s right to believe that what made blogging useful in its heyday is precisely what’s being undermined by the proliferation of larger, edited blogs. If we think of the Christian blogosphere like an industry, with individual, personal blogs as small businesses, then the ministry blogs are the Wal-Marts and Speedways and shopping malls; they exist, in a sense, to get as big as possible and (in the process) put the other guys out of business.

Further, in the ascendancy of Wal-Marts and shopping malls individuals lose something more than a feeling of smallish intimacy and familiarity—we lose a significant amount of control over the industry itself. Thus, ten years ago, if you wanted to get people in your slice of conservative evangelicalism to talk about something, you could write a blog about it. Nowadays, the best way to get someone to talk about it is to convince an editor at TGC or Desiring God or Christianity Today to publish your 1,000 word article—something that most Christians (even articulate ones) won’t do and many can’t do. Tim’s point, if I’m reading him correctly, is that having a small number of paid editors basically regulate what the online evangelical world is saying is both an intellectual and literary downgrade from the days when blogs were a rule unto themselves.

Interestingly, this argument is not unlike what Alan Jacobs has written in defense of personal websites over and against social media accounts. Jacobs has privacy and ownership in mind moreso than the free flow of discourse, but it’s not difficult to see how his and Tim’s points might converge. In both cases, the impulse is against what we might call digital landlords and for a kind of cultivation of online space in ways that are personal and, thus, more responsible.

I said above I was going to offer a “qualified” agreement with Tim. In short, I agree with him that the decline of personal blogging is a net loss for Christian writers, and that there are problems to inherit with the rise and growth of larger ministry sites. Here’s my qualification: I think the proliferation of large, professionally edited sites, while a net loss for bloggers, is probably a net gain for readers.

As I see it, Tim is right in articulating the problems that come when evangelical online writing is heavily filtered toward these large sites. But I think we could add  that there are problems to deal with when it is not filtered, and that these problems are, for most Christian readers (not writers), trickier to deal with than the other kind. I’ll mention 3 of them:

i) The problem of theological authority. Tish Harrison Warren got right to the heart of the matter a while back ago when she asked, “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” As personal online platforms grow and grow, and as those platforms become a de facto source of authority in other people’s lives (most of these platforms call it being an “influencer” rather than an authority, but it’s really the same), a serious question emerges: How do we navigate the competing claims of dozens of bloggers whose voices are both equally present and equally ephemeral through the internet?

The proliferation of large ministry blogs is, I think, a partial answer to that question. You might think TGC publishes the wrong perspective on a given topic, but the point is that TGC publishes such a perspective only after a leadership group that coheres theologically (to a great extent) decides to publish it. This is part of what gives TGC’s platform a kind of spiritual authority to many people. It’s certainly an imperfect spiritual authority, as any earthly spiritual authority will be and any online spiritual authority will doubly be. But readers can locate these imperfections much more specifically and cogently because of TGC’s centralization than they could in the wild west of individual blogs.

ii) The problem of social media and online “presence.” I think it’s Tim himself who has pointed out that in the evangelical blogosphere’s golden days, the blog served the same role as Twitter now does.  Today, the only way to thrive as a blogger is to maintain an online presence through social media. For better or worse, social media is to blogging what a WiFi connection is to browsing the web: You don’t strictly have to have it, but you’re not going anywhere fast without it. Social media is by far the #1 driver of traffic to individual blogs.

Now of course, the same is probably true for the large ministry sites. But the consolidation of the evangelical blogosphere into professionally edited publications ameliorates this dynamic, especially for readers who want to become writers. One of the biggest reasons I don’t encourage more people to blog is that I know that doing so is encouraging them to cultivate a heavier presence on social media—which, I’m convinced, is something we all should be doing less of. Large ministry sites that review unsolicited pitches are a bulwark against this. You don’t have to have a bazillion Instagram followers and a gnawing sense of FOMO and despair in order to be taken seriously in your pitch.

iii) The problem of literary excellence. Near the end of his article, Tim writes that “we will develop better writing and writers when we can write substantially and freely.” I wonder if he has perhaps confused writing with blogging. While I absolutely agree that the best way to cultivate a healthy evangelical writing world is to encourage more of it, I think Tim’s formulation leaves out the integral role that editing plays in the development of literary excellence.

Blogging has always had a catch-22: It promotes writing growth through constant access to the craft, but such access is purchased by eliminating some of the things that most help develop writers. Editing, both at the conceptual and copy level, grows writers. To the degree that bloggers learn how to write underneath the process and principles of editing, you will almost certainly see writing habits that express emotivism and logical fallacies. I would argue that in the some of the darker corners of both the conservative and progressive Christian blogosphere, you can see stark examples of bloggers who have rarely, if ever, surrendered their work to someone who could evaluate their approach. I think professional editors are a welcome antidote to this. Their growing presence in the evangelical writing world has borne good fruit.

As I said above, I think these three problems with an expansive Christian blogosphere are different problems for writers than they are for readers. Writers will always want more space to write. Writers can devote chunks of time to thinking through issues and shaping their ideas. Most readers, though, are at the mercy of social media and the level of theological confidence that online writers can project onto their own personal platforms. To the degree that large “ministry blogs” have pushed Christian bloggers to the margins, we should lament. But to the degree that they have reached more Christian readers with trustworthy content that takes form and message equally seriously, we ought to celebrate.

Look Up, Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evangelical Christianity and the Teen Depression Epidemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Argue Like Those Who Have No Hope

Christians seem hopelessly captive to the same news cycle, the same polarization, and the same grievances as unbelievers. This is tragic.

“Mansplain.” “Feminazi.” “Social Justice Warrior.” “Colonizer.” This is the argumentative vocabulary of the world, which has no hope of ultimate reconciliation, atonement, or New Creation. These are words designed to make people feel chained to an errant identity and undeserving of serious attention and care. They’re precisely the lingo we should expect from those whom Paul describes as “without God and without hope in the world.”

What’s surprising is hearing them on the lips of those who do have that hope.

Even before I write these words, I know that many Christians will be revving up their “whataboutisms” to show me how much of a hypocrite I am. Don’t I know how condescending males can be toward the opposite sex? Haven’t I read the latest ridiculous diatribe from a leading feminist? Don’t I believe in justice? What about, what about, what about.

This kind of thinking is like a carousel. It will just go around and around and never reach an exit. We can signal our political ideals, compare and contrast each group’s relative suffering and indignity, and drag out sordid examples of the opposing tribe’s worst instincts all day long (especially on Twitter). There will never not be evidence against them and evidence against us. Trying to arrive at truly transcendent truth by playing tribal politics is like trying to drive an SUV through the ocean.

But this is the only way many unbelievers know how to think. In a secularizing culture where it is increasingly possible to go through one’s entire educational career without hearing one inkling about God, nobody should be shocked at the size of our political golden calves. We are “incurably religious” people being herded away from religion and toward social micro-identities. If we won’t love God, we shall love ideology. If we won’t hate Satan, we shall hate immigrants or straight white men.

Thus is the experience of many in America. But what about in the church?

The spirit of the age has found partnership with too many of us believers when it comes to how we talk about those with whom we disagree. I used to think the Bible college dorm-room debates over Calvinism represented the low point of evangelical discourse. Then I got a Twitter account. Then Donald Trump was elected president. For my money, the problem is not just that Christians aren’t nice enough toward one another. The problem is that we seem hopelessly captive to the same news cycle, the same polarization, and the same grievances as the media moguls who stand to make a pretty penny from the coarsening of American public life. There is a continuity not only between what evangelicals and what unbelievers say, but between what captivates our attention and stokes our emotions. This is tragic.

Here’s an example. In a widely praised evangelical book about race published last year, I find the following line: “White privilege means that even if you’re the unluckiest white person born in the United States, you were still born into a fortunate race.” Now, the assertion on its face is questionable. But ask yourself this—what would the relational dynamics be like in a congregation that was preaching and teaching and structuring their benevolence ministries according to the dictum that even the poorest, most vulnerable white members were inherently better off (and thus, in less need of help) than their minority brothers and sisters? What would be the state of unity and gospel fellowship be in a local church that was committed to pigeonholing an entire ethnicity in their congregation as permanently “privileged”?

I’m certainly not interested in castigating any and all efforts to recognize the racist practices of American history as “cultural Marxism” (another dog whistle of a noun that should disappear from the mouths of serious Christians), nor am I veering toward a vanilla call for “unity” that is really code for “Stop talking about my brothers and sisters in Jesus whose experiences make me politically uncomfortable.” What I am suggesting is that too many evangelicals seem comfortable simply transposing the ideas and taxonomies of secular society into the community of faith.

But the gospel is too violent on our intuitions for that to succeed. We can’t simply baptize the excesses of intersectionality in order to correct the God-and-country Republicanism that led to a morally bankrupt Religious Right. The identitarian, truth-diminishing, Bible-ignoring lingo that some evangelicals have tried to program into Christian conversation is a sign that we’re trying, and failing, to do just that.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul has the audacity to suggest that there is a wrong way for Christians to grieve the death of their loved ones. This sounds unconscionably insensitive to modern ears. But Paul’s intrusion on our emotional lives is a glorious one: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” In other words, there is a way to grieve that acknowledges that one day a risen Jesus Christ will call all the dead out of their graves and death itself will be conquered forever. So, Paul says, don’t just grieve. Grieve like that!

To which I would add: there is a way to speak to one another and debate one another and learn from one another that acknowledges that some day we will all know as we are known, and we will all be one in an endless mutuality of love. So don’t argue like those who have no such hope.


image credit (licensed under CC 3.0)

When Re-Conversion Is Easier Than Repentance

Many evangelical church cultures make it safer to deny last year’s Christianity than to admit you are a struggling believer.

Let me tell you a familiar story from my days in evangelical youth ministry.

A teenager with roots in the church would make semi-regular appearances throughout the year, be respectful during Bible study/church, but otherwise seem non-cognizant of Christianity the rest of the year. Then one year, the teenager goes with the youth group on a week-long “mission trip” to a Christian camp. At one point during the week, the teenager has an emotional (possibly tearful) experience and tells their youth leader they need to be truly saved. This joyous announcement follows the teenager home where she stands in front of the whole congregation a couple Sundays later and shares her story of “realizing for the first time” that she “actually needed Jesus in her life.”

Fast forward 12 months or so. Around winter the teenager had largely dropped out of the Bible studies and fellowship nights she had been regularly attending. Everyone knows this teen is a Christian—they were there at the camp—but nobody really knows where she’s been for the past few months.

Now the youth group is taking another week-long summer trip, and she’s coming too. And just like last year, at some point in the week, she gets emotional about Jesus. Also like last year, she asks to talk to her youth minister, and yet again like last year, she comes to realize that she wasn’t “really” a Christian after all. Through tears and hugs she announces her newfound authentic faith, and again brings her testimony home to the church. But like last time, summer doesn’t last forever. By February people are asking where she’s been, and some are already becoming cynical: “Just wait til she gets saved this summer.”

***

In my evangelical church experience, “re-conversions” were as common as conversions, and sometimes more so. Emotionally charged church events, such as youth camps, revivals, etc, would almost always be the occasion for a re-conversion. Sometimes the re-conversion seemed less than authentic, but sometimes it stuck, too. At one point in my life these occasions became so common that we looked forward to the annual church camp trip simply because the trip represented a high point for the youth group that we knew wasn’t going to be repeated or even sustained throughout the year.

No matter who it was that “re-converted” at a given summer, those of us in the group generally knew what had been going on for this person. They liked church, liked their Christian friends, and enjoyed studying the Bible, but for whatever reason the person they were at youth group was not the same person they were at school, work, or online. In a lot of cases we even knew the sins our friend was confessing to the youth minister in the corner. We didn’t know why last year’s trip didn’t stick. We only knew to pray that this one would.

Looking back, youth camp trips were the practical expression of our muddled Southern Baptist ideas about “once saved, always saved.” We believed that. We also believed each tear that fell from the usual suspects each summer. If we sensed a tension between our group’s annual ritual of “really getting saved” and what we said we believed about not losing one’s salvation, we didn’t lose sleep over it. After all, one can be genuinely mistaken about their own soul, and that more than once. Right?

But here’s what has bothered me for a while now. I’m beginning to think that the summer re-conversion ritual said more about our church culture than it said about the tearful teens. I’m beginning to think that the church camp re-conversions were really about how insecure, ashamed teenagers felt safer in the group denying last year’s Christianity than admitting that they were believers who were struggling. Confessing you were a bad Christian last year was a significant social risk that could be met with suspicion and shaming. Confessing that you weren’t actually a Christian at all, but you are now, was just good news.

I’m not saying that these friends were definitely Christians or were definitely not. I don’t know that and I’m glad I don’t know. But as I’ve encountered more evangelical culture as an adult, I’ve seen and heard enough to convince me that many church-going evangelicals have a far more vibrant theology of “getting saved” than they have of ongoing repentance in the life of a believer. Evangelicalism’s mentality seems to be that “repentance” is what non-Christians do when the Holy Spirit tells them they’ve been living a phony life. What do Christians do when they’re convicted of sin? Well, we’re not really sure, because we’re not really sure what to think of Christians and sin.

Re-conversion offers many evangelicals the emotional catharsis of acknowledging sin without the social shaming or awkwardness that comes when people who claim to be Christians acknowledge sin. If you weren’t really a Christian but you are now, wonderful! Enter into our joy. But if you actually are a Christian and you have to talk about sin that you’re not entirely sure how to address, well, how close should we stand next to you? How contagious is it?

Perhaps what was happening every summer is that teens who really did have a sensitive heart toward Christ and the church were just utterly confused as to what being a Christian meant for people like them…people who wanted to be liked by the coolest kids in school, people who wanted to be invited to the best things, people who actually had a life beyond Bible studies. They knew intuitively something was off between the Sunday morning testimony in July and the missed gatherings and neglected devotions in February, but they didn’t know why it was off. They just knew they felt differently during those church trips. What was it they felt? The Holy Spirit, which is what they’ve been told shows up when we’re about to repen…erm, get saved.

One of biggest tragedies of evangelical spirituality is that we’ve neglected the Bible’s tender, compassionate words to Christians. We’ve reduced Christian practice to avoiding the non-respectable sins and presenting the gospel to sinful unbelievers, trying to get them to convert and leave all that sin behind. But we’ve missed so much of the immense patience, lovingkindness, mercy, and encouragement in the Bible toward real believers who are struggling against the sin that so easily entangles. Maybe it’s because we don’t know our Bibles. Or maybe it’s because our vision of God is too much like ourselves: We think of him not as a Father who picks up our falls but as the gatekeeper to an exclusive club that demands that old, imperfect members buy a whole new membership to keep the club tidy.

I wish my church experience had seen more repentance and fewer re-conversions. Jesus promises, after all, to forgive and cleanse the unrighteousness we confess to him. Better to be who we really are in front of our loving Father than to just find a new mask to wear. That’s the gospel. Is it evangelicalism?