Never the demons

The first few chapters of Mark’s gospel mention Jesus’s casting out demons and “unclean spirits” more than five times. The first public work that Jesus performs in Mark is casting a demon out of a man who was calm enough on the outside to attend synagogue on Sabbath. On the other end of the spectrum is the man who lived “among the tombs” and cut himself in demonic madness. The latter example is a bigger spectacle, but it is striking how many times in Mark the Bible just passingly notes that Jesus was casting out unclean spirits in all kind of spaces. They were everywhere, even in public worship. Casting them out wasn’t an occasional part of his ministry; it went hand-in-hand with his teaching and healing.

So the question nagging me is: if the literal people of God were so beset with demonic oppression that the Son of God spent a great deal of time casting out demons (and sent his disciples out to do the same in his name), how beset with demonic oppression are we moderns—we who are “spiritual but not religious,” open to the influence of the numinous but with no knowledge or even desire to know what kind of spiritual forces take us up on our invitation? I’m all for interrogating the harmful effects of some church cultures, but I’m not sure why we don’t even linger over the news of a young man’s murdering eight people to “eliminate temptation” long enough to see the demonic forces that Jesus clearly saw everywhere he went. And when that story is quickly followed by another mass murder in Colorado? The news cycle just resets, and the blood is on the hands of the GOP, or all Muslims, or purity culture, or cancel culture…name your ideological enemy, and you can find someone prominent laying horror at their feet.

Never the demons.

Why not? Perhaps one reason is that ignoring the work of demons allows us to ignore the work the Lord gave us in opposing them. “These kind can only be cast out by prayer,” he once said. Prayer against demonic works, and the earthly powers clearly beholden to those demonic works, is not as satisfyingly assuring as playing a culture war blame game. We look to scapegoat others so that we are not ourselves implicated. And a lot of what gets called “analysis” is merely this: looking at the world for any and every sign that we ourselves are the righteous people we believe us to be, and the Other Side are the wicked tribe we believe them to be. This is not polarization or hatred nearly as much as it is a profoundly deep kind of therapy. Self-righteousness as self-care.

In his book The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs references a stunning quote by the Catholic literary giant W.H. Auden:

Psychoanalysis, like all pagan scientia, says: “Come, my good man, no wonder you feel guilty. You have a distorting mirror, and that is indeed a very wicked thing to have. But cheer up. For a trifling consideration I shall be delighted to straighten it out for you. There. Look. A perfect image. The evil of distortion is exorcised. Now you have nothing to repent of any longer. Now you are one of the illumined and elect. That will be ten thousand dollars, please.”

And immediately come seven devils, and the last state of that man is worse than the first.

One of the themes in Mark is how the demons know Jesus. They know who he is. The demons are far more theologically astute than the people, even Jesus’s disciples. The man among the tombs cries out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” After Jesus sends this man’s demons into the pigs, the herdsmen and townspeople beg Jesus to leave their region. If they listened to the demons, they wouldn’t have done this. Against their own will, the unclean spirits declare truth, the deep nature of things. But what if we can’t hear them? What if the “distorting mirrors” suck, like a black hole, all attention onto its image?

We see horror. We blame the fundamentalists, the progressives, the Calvinists, the woke. “If only these people—the people who raised me, the people I met in college, the people in my old church or the people at this other church—if only these people would change or go away,” we say, “the world would not be such a horrible place.” No one responds to this way of thinking with prayer. No one is moved to fast by the feeling that those Bad People Over There must be stopped. We are moved to Tweet, to blog, to rage, to shut out. To look more deeply into that distorting mirror.

Never the demons.

Country club deconstruction

Deconstructing the Christian faith in which you were raised due to suffering or intellectual/existential crisis is a move that deserves a careful and nuanced response. Deconstructing your faith because you’ve grown up and discovered cooler people than the folks in your youth group deserves something different. 

I know there are plenty of people in the first category. But to be honest, I’m starting to suspect that the deconstruction content industry is funded and operated mostly by people in the second category. There are too many common schticks, stories, and even experiences among the ex-Christian books and podcasts. Some similarities among people who were raised in conservative religious circles is completely expected. But when just about every de-converting personality says “There were never good answers to my questions,” any reasonable person might begin wondering if there’s some note-sharing going on. 

Christians want to understand why people leave the faith, and our evangelistic beliefs mean that we instinctively make it our responsibility when a person who was in church for several years ends up disavowing everything they once believed. I don’t think this is a bad thing. But I also think, in a time when #content is king and everyone’s perspective is potentially for sale, it’s an easily exploitable thing. If you want big, rich publishers to pay attention to someone who was raised in a mostly white, conservative Christian environment, tell that person to come out of the gates swinging against it. If you want highly-followed accounts on Twitter to link to you and say things like, “Really important thread,” insist that you were brainwashed by your youth pastor. 

Of course, merely pointing this out can feel like a callous disregard for the way bad theology or bad church cultures can shipwreck people’s faith. They absolutely can do that. That’s one reason why the flavors of novelty and detachment from history and tradition in American evangelicalism are so destructive. We’ve certainly already seen how much Christian spirituality in America cashes out to spiritual jargon + conservative political beliefs. When you storm the US Capitol building with a placard that says “Jesus Saves,” you’ve jumped the shark. 

But in the halls of influence and affluence in American society, pointing this out is easy. It’s nearly a form of social currency. Which is why the popularity of the deconstruction story is something a little bit other than a rebuke of the spiritual formation practices of backward conservative evangelicals. Plenty of “deconstruction” stories are predictably American: someone grows up in a small, conservative community; moves away to college or career; and discovers that bars and sex and Left politics don’t immediately vaporize them the way they thought. What’s worse, this story is often soaked in ex-Christian shibboleths, like the one mentioned above about never getting answers to questions—as if the questions didn’t have answers. There were questions I had growing up in Christianity that didn’t get good answers from my youth pastor or Sunday school class. But it turns out those answers exist and functional, college-educated adults can find them: if they want to. 

I guess the point of this post is to say: maybe lots of people who’ve abandoned the Christianity of their youth are suffering in ways they don’t realize. Maybe their deconstruction is just another part of their life that they have built around getting the approval of people who will be glad to join a social media cancel mob against them if the wrong post ever gets dug up. Maybe, more than being assured that their childhood Christianity was malformation, they need to be inspired to care about whether things are true or untrue, rather than whether they get attention. 

God thought…and thought…and thought

When I was growing up my mother used to tell me regularly:

“God thought, and thought, and thought, and thought—and he made you a boy.”

As a kid I thought this was encouraging, if a little obvious. As a teen I thought this was a silly thing to say. As a Bible college student I was worried that describing God as thinking this much was overly anthropological. As a father to two young children—a boy and a girl who are beautiful in so many ways, including ways that pertain to their gender—and as a father who sees the world that is being narrated to children right now, I think it’s probably one of the most important things I can tell them. 

Anxieties will come. Insecurities will come. Sin will come. But no matter what anyone else tells you, my child, remember: 

God thought

…and thought…

…and thought…

…and thought…

And he made you exactly who you are. 

You need realistic expectations about online writing

All variables being equal, the time to use blogging or social media to build a large following is over. That window closed at some point in Obama’s second term. There are probably a few reasons for this, but the main one is that the space is simply too full. The folks who were on Twitter and Facebook plugging their theology and culture blog back in 2009 are the ones who have 10,000+ followers now, but the vast majority of that growth happened between 2008-2014. By the mid 2010s the secret connection between online writing and offline platform building was out, and everybody wanted to see what their “voice” could get for them. Today Twitter has over 260 million global users, but the most important part of that is 90% of a day’s worth of Tweets are written by the top 10% of users. Social media has arguably always been an ocean of noise, but the difference now is that the loudest voices have microphones and speakers and the rest of us have soapboxes. 

What does this mean for somebody aspiring to write and publish? 

-It means you’re almost certainly not going to blog yourself into a publishing contract. But this isn’t an argument against blogging. Blogging is the least economically valuable that it’s ever been, but it might be more epistemologically valuable than ever before. Good blogs are islands in the ocean of digital noise. Forming and expressing thoughts in a direct format—with readers who are able to track with you over the long haul—is a good writing habit, for which there are no real substitutes. 

-What you need are realistic expectations about the online content landscape. You’re not going to be able to quit your day job once you get your first YouTube subscriber or Twitter follower. If you’re looking for the internet content industry to give you an off-ramp from 9-to-5 life, your best bet is not to be a careful and thoughtful writer, but to be a social media leech who will say or do anything for clicks. Alas, man does not live by bread alone, and poorly gained wealth is not reliable (Prov. 13:11). If you’re looking to become the kind of writer worth reading, realize this: writing good stuff online still offers the opportunity to gain a niche audience, and a niche audience is the one that’s valuable right now. This is partly why newsletters are surging; people who care about their content AND being read are tired of flailing in the ocean of noise. They want to find a quiet pond. 

-A good niche offers better and more meaningful opportunities than a below-average generalism. Chasing the headlines and weighing in on every single thing Vox and the Atlantic’s Slack channels think you should be talking about is no longer a ticket to recognition…because everyone’s doing that. What’s much better is finding a space that you can fill, that readers respond to, and then taking the invitations to expand that niche when they come. If you want to write and are willing to cultivate that desire without instant gratification or short-term rewards, the spots are out there.

Ill of the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes what you really need is to see greatness

Look, I’ve spent most of my football life loathing Tom Brady. He robbed my team of a Super Bowl twice. He is arrogant and has often been unlikable. He has benefited from astonishingly fawning officiating and the NFL’s general unwillingness to really punish rule breakers.

But I’ve decided to throw that out tonight. Because Tom Brady is 43, he is starting quarterback for a team in the Super Bowl, and because he has now played in 19% of the NFL’s total Super Bowls. I don’t think seeing those words on a screen can do justice to how absurd those facts are. Brady is the greatest football player of all time, and by a margin that I’m not entirely sure is comparable to any other in sports. Jordan will always be talked about along LeBron. Pele will always be compared against Maradonn and Messi. What peer does Tom Brady have? Nobody.

None of these automatically means that I need to enjoy another Brady Super Bowl victory. But to be honest, I think I need it. I think there’s something in my spirit that needs to see unfathomable greatness continue, to rejoice in it amidst seemingly endless displays of incompetence and indifference in all walks of American life. Brady is truly great, and true greatness is good for the soul to lose itself in every now and again without needling qualifiers and the self-actualizing rituals of an expressive individualistic age.

For every constant, oppressive reminder of how stagnant and fragmented American culture is, a display of greatness like that of Brady is a hopeful reminder of what’s possible. Count me in. Come on, 12.

An Unlived Life

I’ve been thinking about this Joshua Rothman essay about our “unlived lives” ever since Alan Jacobs linked to it. Part of that probably has to do with the fact that I’m now a couple years deep into my 30s, and the 30s feel (so far) as if they are the quintessential “what if” decade. I am far enough now from adolescence and the open road of the college years to see what could have gone differently. I was talking to a dear friend just last night, whose post-seminary life has not at all followed the script he thought it would. He’s faithful and happy, but I could hear in his voice—not regret, exactly, but perhaps sobriety, a lingering, ambient wonderment at the difference between the road he thought he’d been on and the one he ended up traveling.

I don’t know if Christians enjoy talking about this. I wonder if there is a subtle guilt for believers in probing our unlived lives, as if the realization that they exist are an expression of ingratitude to God or discontent with his care. Obviously those feelings are possible, and we all know one or two people who fell into the pit self-oriented bitterness and never really got out. That’s real, and dangerous. But might it also be dangerous to assume that God’s sovereign goodness over our lives is never to be looked at any angle other than the present? God’s providence does not mean that our choices add up to zero or that there is no good use in contemplating the paths we took when more options were before us.

In fact, it’s not exactly a secret that being unable to come to terms with one’s life in a meaningful way tends to open the door for some destructive aftermath. I’m reminded of a very helpful observation from Russell Moore, coming from his years of pastoral and counseling experience:

A common theme I have found in adulterous affairs is that the one cheating is almost always seeking to recapture the feeling of adolescence or young adulthood. For a short period of time, the person is swept up in the drama of “I love you; do you love me” romance, without all the burdens of who is picking up Chloe from school or what day to put the recycling bin out at the curb or how to budget for the mortgage. The secret lover seems to make the married person feel young or “alive” again, until everything comes crashing down. The person is usually not looking for a sexual experience but for an alternative universe, one in which he or she made different choices.

I felt the truth of this observation a few months ago when Carl Lentz, former pastor of Hillsong Church in New York, was fired for adultery. Illicit sex, even among ministers, is sadly unremarkable. What stood out more about the whole story was that Lentz almost immediately connected the affair to his “burnout” and exhaustion in his ministry, as if the adultery were more about rewriting the script of his life than sexual pleasure. Remember that story a few years ago about the extramarital hookup app Ashely Madison? The tagline of the website (which was hacked and its clients, including “family values” activists, exposed) was, “Life is short…have an affair.” Those who seek to profit from adultery know that the short, often dissatisfying nature of daily life is the spark a wildfire needs.

But it’s not just extramarital affairs. Our unlived lives can manifest themselves in all sorts of replacement-level habits and experiences. I’m beginning to suspect that in my own life my use of social media, especially Twitter, has much to do with a sense of compensation for a lack of meaningful, challenging interpersonal relationships. I go to Twitter to experience a digital version of the conversations that I don’t have offline. I think about Lewis and Tolkien and the Inklings, a group of likeminded peers who cultivated over many years a warm intimacy that stretched them spiritually and intellectually. Life if the 21st century seems to be set up to make such a gathering of men my age almost impossible; even churches typically think of men’s gatherings as primarily opportunities to be taught and/or rebuked (this is why, in many church cultures, men receive accountability while women receive encouragement and support).

When the values of society are set up to prioritize nonstop efficiency and “productivity,” and then afterwards ruthlessly curated and isolating forms of entertainment, a concept ike Twitter—where people gather to merely talk—feels almost quaint. Social media, at least in its better moments, feels like a paean to that “unlived life” of close knit relationship. We know in our hearts that social media is not true community, which is why we’ve spent a year of pandemic lockdown dangerously depressed and anxious. How many people are on social media obsessively not because they’ve never experienced actual community, but because they have, and because the older they got, the more the people and places disappeared, leaving a hole that only social media apps even pretended to fill?

Even given the dangers, I think Christians ought to be thoughtful about unlived lives. To know that our lives could have been different, that other choices  could have been made and other paths taken, can evoke something better than nostalgia. There’s a serious gratitude that wells up in the corners of one’s heart when you consider how the people, places, and tasks that you now love were given to you through a series of events over which you exercised only the most minuscule forms of control. If my pastor father had taken a different church when I was 14, or if we had not moved that year at all, it’s almost certain I never would have met my wife. Who else would I have met or fallen in love with? Who knows, but the point is, those unlived lives  apart from Emily are not the sweet, tender, rich reality I have now. To ask whether a different life would have been better is to impose my current definition of “better” onto the past. But I only know what words like “better” mean to me because of the life I actually lived.

To meditate on our unlived lives—to meditate well—is to understand just how un-shaped we are without the elements of life that we don’t necessarily choose. And what is true of our past is equally true of the present and future. Where we are right now and with whom we are right now are molding and shaping us, and all at the mercy of a God who promises only a fate of good for those who love him.

The Unlost Year

You don’t need somebody to tell you that 2020 has been, by most standards, pretty awful. But instead of rehearsing all the global suffering that went on this year, I want to say a quick word to a specific group of people: those who feel as if, between lockdowns and closed churches and insane politics, they “lost” this year.

I suspect some might be feeling this way because I am. As in every year there is much for me to be thankful for in 2020. I’ve received much good. But my feeling of lostness is that I don’t feel as if I’ve done much good. My Bible reading plan lasted no time at all. Church closures, and then a move, scuttled many heartfelt ambitions I had for getting more involved. I meant to read and write more in 2020—I certainly had the time—but ended up logging more hours of news and Twitter than I wanted. I’ve seen spiritual growth in my life but not as much as I need and/or planned on. I’ve not been as creative or forward thinking in my parenting as I wanted; my kids have spent most of this year indoors, just getting through the day.

We made it through 2020 by the grace of the Lord. We are healthy and blessed. But I could have done more. So much of my time this year feels like it is sunk cost. I’m wrestling with the sensation of having lived a lost year.

As I was thinking about this, I remembered something I’ve noticed before in Scripture: the way the passage of time is described. Or, more accurately, the way the passage of time is not described. Have you seen this? In the narrative of Scripture hundreds of years are passed with the turn of a page. An adult’s lifetime is described in one sentence that contains their birth and death. Even in Jesus’ life, we are told as an 11 or 12 year old he was in the temple talking to the teachers, and then the next paragraph catches up with him beside John in the Jordan river in his 30s. Those hundreds, even thousands of “skipped” years were not merely frozen to the people who lived them. They were as long as our years, as filled with life, death, love, pain, and redemption.

No one would conclude from this that God doesn’t care about the lives and centuries that weren’t documented in the Bible. The Psalmist says that all his days are in God’s book. God sees and God knows those anonymous years. So why do we have them? Why is there so much time in the Bible that is not captured for us, so many people and places and events that were life changing in their time but lost to us moderns forever?

Here’s one possibility: In the record of redemptive history God has given us, he shows us that he doesn’t think of time the way we think of it. God is immanent and transcendent. He is in the present with us, but he is not locked in. We live and move and have our being in our allotted days, but God sees our present in the sweep of eternity. We can learn in our daily life that God is with us, but we must be taught that our life is not the only life, that God sees not only what we are but what we shall become, sees not only our now but also our later and even our no more.

I think this is encouraging to me on a couple fronts. My fear of a “lost” year is a fear rooted in my own standards. But what if those standards are questionable? What if the my goals of Bible reading and productivity look different through the filter of heaven? What if all the frustration and sadness and disappointment of this year does not add up to “lost,” but to something else? If the message of the Bible is anything at all, it’s that God doesn’t see us the way we see ourselves. The things we prioritize are not necessarily the goals of Christ. The feelings of failure are not the judgments of the gospel. What is “lost” to us is not lost to him.

It’s not uncommon to hear people say that COVID-19 stole a year. But stealing requires ownership. Who owns 2020? Surely it is the same God who, in unsearchable (and often unknowable) sovereign wisdom allowed this virus to ravage the earth. The hand of the Lord cannot steal what belongs to him. Since the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether, perhaps the lesson of 2020 is not abut a virus at all, but at about human frailty, the smallness of our supposed greatness, and the way eternity bends not toward our fulfilled goals and resolutions but toward the bended knee, the empty hand, and the desperate plea for God.

I did not choose to learn this lesson in 2020. It was forced upon me when I would have learned other things. But I am glad to learn it.

Happy New Year, friends.

Stop Saying “Toxic”

Every week on social media I seem to see something new described as “toxic.” Toxic has become the word of choice, it seems, to describe something that you feel is bad but seems to resist more precise condemnation. This word is everywhere. I’ve used it myself. Everyone seems to know what “toxic” means even though the word is applied to a staggeringly diverse group of maladies. Here’s a sampling just from my own reading:

  • Evangelical culture is toxic
  • YouTube comments are toxic
  • Jordan Peterson is toxic
  • Political discourse is toxic
  • The New York Times is toxic
  • Pornhub is toxic
  • John Piper is toxic

I know exactly what each of these statements is supposed to make me feel: loathing, disgust, avoidance, etc. The problem here is that “toxic” seems to be a stand-in for other words, other descriptions, and those other words probably won’t mean the same thing if you applied them to everything else on the list. John Piper may be toxic in your view, but nobody would say he’s toxic just like Pornhub is toxic. The New York Times may be, according to you, a toxic institution, but it cannot be toxic for the same reasons that YouTube or my church are toxic. So that leaves us with the impression that toxic just really means bad.

So…why is toxic so much better/cooler/woker to say than “bad”? Where are the essays about bad masculinity? What does “toxic” reveal that bad doesn’t?

A couple theories:

1) We seem to be at a point, at least in online discourse, where the more imprecise a moral judgment is, the better. The obvious example is how loaded conversations about identity are with words like “oppress” or “bigot” or “right side of history.” If you say something like, “Bigots are on the wrong side of history,” everyone knows what you’re saying is true, even if you decline to define the words “bigot,” “wrong side,” or “history.” The word toxic is a nice shorthand because it carries with it the necessary negative connotation but does not contain in itself the object of moral scorn. If you say that such-and-such pastor is misogynistic, that’s an equally loaded term, but now you’ve advanced a claim that can be evaluated based on the meaning of words. But if you say that such-and-such pastor is toxic, you can mean that the pastor is misogynistic (and the right audience will know this) while not risking a potentially defeating response from someone who evaluates your claim.

This benefits the speaker, obviously. But it also benefits the audience by allowing feelings of disgust and icky outgroup-ness to be shared among people who may not have any idea why they’re supposed to feel this way. “Trust me, this person is toxic” is very freeing to hear to folks with particular kinds of ambition and tribal sensibilities.

2) The word “toxic” does not technically describe anything’s nature. It describes an effect. Polluted air is toxic if you breathe it. Rat poison is toxic if you ingest it. This leads me to wonder if a lot of people describe something as toxic as a way of signaling how it makes them feel, or how they believe it makes other people feel. Obviously very few people see the word toxic and make this instant connection, so the word is used as though it does describe something’s nature—e.g., something that’s immoral, prejudicial, oppressive, etc.

Thus, you get think pieces like, “Let’s Talk About Netflix’s Toxic New Show,” or, “The Oscars Have Hired an Unbelievably Toxic Host.” More substantively, you might get something like, “Conservative Evangelicals Embrace Toxic Theology.” In each example the upshot of the article is clear from the headline: Netflix needs to dump the show, the Oscars need a new host, and conservative evangelicals need to believe something different. But if these things are toxic, why does anyone support them, either a Netflix producer or the Oscars or evangelical theologians? Clicking through to the article will likely explain that toxic things are done by toxic people, and that the reason one needs to be sure to keep up with all the new emerging toxicity is so you can avoid toxic people at all costs. Kick them out of your life before they intoxicate you.

You’ve probably heard someone say they got out of a “toxic relationship.” In many cases what they mean is that the other person was mean, rude, selfish, possibly abusive. I’m not sure why describing a relationship as “toxic” is actually better than saying the reasons for it. It seems to me that if someone is truly cruel or manipulative, that moral character is worth describing truthfully, and calling them “toxic” is letting them off the hook. Perhaps the flip side is true too: perhaps some people say “toxic” when they really mean, “I didn’t enjoy this and it wasn’t what I wanted.” In that instance it’s pretty clear that describing another person as toxic lets you off the hook.

Imprecise moral judgments are valuable because they cast a wide net. Precise moral judgments can be pushed back upon by people who would seem qualified to do so. For example, if you accuse a person or group of being racist, a member of a different race could theoretically complicate your accusation by disagreeing with you. The way around this is to ascribe a moral but fluid negative characteristic to the group, so that people who are inclined to agree with you can do so and those not inclined are in danger of walking into your description by failing a standard they don’t know.

“Toxic” then seems to be the perfect word to describe the sin of not being the Right Kind of Person. It’s a conversation ender, a debate finisher, a slammed door. The only way to not be toxic is to not be toxic. The racist could repent, the misogynist could change, the slanderer could make a U-turn. But a toxic person cannot de-toxify. They don’t even know where to start.

A resolution for 2021: Don’t say “toxic” when you mean something else. Say what you mean, so that what you mean will be worth saying.

In Praise of Slow Reading

I always love seeing the December end-of-year reading lists from friends. One of social media’s few unambiguous benefits is how easy it is to get good recommendations for reading, watching, listening, etc. But I have to confess that every year around this time I get a little embarrassed when I see friends post 15 or more books on their end of year list (and I have a lot of friends who do this). I always click the links, but while scanning for their recs I’m usually distracted by the guilt and frustration I feel for not having read that many books.

Aside from any work-required reading, I almost never read more than 6-8 books in a given year. If that makes you think less of me, I don’t blame you. I’ve come to realize that most people in my line of work and in my social circle read at least twice that many, and many read more than that. I have two excuses, one of which is boring and the other of which is more interesting. The boring excuse is that my job requires me to read a lot. Not only does work reading take up many hours per week that might otherwise have been given to pleasure reading, the truth is that after a long day of going through manuscripts and proposals and edits, I’m usually done with reading. I’d rather watch football or The Crown. Whether that’s good or bad I don’t know, but it’s just where I am.

The slightly more interesting excuse is that I’m a genuinely slow reader. Books that I love are almost never completed in less than two weeks. Books that are ho-hum take significantly longer (unless I’m under a review deadline). Over the years I’ve realized that my slow reading requires two responses. First, I have to be very selective in what I choose to read off of work hours, and even more selective in what I choose to finish, since finishing will require more time. Second, I have to be OK with this. I have to accept that my slow reading is not a character deficit or an intellectual handicap but simply the way I read. And being OK with this means not trying to artificially get around it by excessive speed-reading (which is almost always only for the sake of being able to say I read something) or by trying to read 4 books at the same time (which I find very difficult and frustrating).

Slow reading isn’t fun in December, when your small pile of books looks even smaller compared to others. But there are some benefits to slow reading I’ve discovered. The first benefit is that being able to linger in a work long enough to absorb not just the words but the spirit of a book. I’ve found this matters quite a bit to me. It’s one thing to remember the overall thesis or claim of a book, but it’s another to have connected with it closely enough to know what kind of book it is. In my writing life I’ve often found that responding to a book’s contribution in a particular genre is often not ultimately about what the book said but how it said it, the posture the author took, the strategy she employed and the spiritual or emotional response the author was trying to elicit. These responses stay with me more closely than the exact phraseology of the book, and in my own life they’ve been key in helping me know what books to return to in which seasons.

Another benefit I’ve gotten from slow reading is the selectivity. We often think of selectivity as only exclusive, i.e, I’m selective so that I can exclude certain books. That’s definitely part of it—I’m always amazed how many people tell me about the bad, long books they finished—but selectivity is also about trying to incorporate as meany meaningful, likely-to-be-remembered works into my reading life as possible. Time is non-transferrable, and the time I might have spent reading a book for no better reason than I wanted people to see that I’d read it would be much better spent reading a book that could plausibly turn into a valuable experience or resource for me. Careful that you don’t hear me arguing against reading widely. On the contrary, the intellectually dulling effects of only ever reading the kinds of book you’d like to write are everywhere in my corner of evangelicalism. Reading fiction doesn’t require that you read all kinds of fiction, if most kinds of fiction bore or numb you. Interestingly, I’ve discovered that being selective within fiction or within nonfiction actually lets me read more of both. It’s very freeing to not chase down books you really don’t want.

But look. The bottom line is that slow reading, while at times socially inconvenient, is very enjoyable. It’s fun to not hurry. It’s fun to listen to a book closely rather skimming for highlights you can tweet or blog about. Reading should be pleasurable, and slow reading is, for me anyway, the way I get the most pleasure from it. My end of year list would be small, but it’s certainly memorable.