On Conservative Flattery

Aaron Renn is a sharp thinker and unusually clear and engaging writer. That’s why I was surprised by the recent edition of his Masculinist newsletter, titled “Flattery will get you everywhere.” In it, the normally insightful Renn stumbles over a variety of tropes and fallacies en route to making a bewilderingly bad-faith argument about American conservatism.

Renn makes his main point clear enough: some conservatives are content to feed their readers lies, because they are well-paid to do so. Other conservatives try to feed their readers the unvarnished truth, and, well, the best these writers can hope for is to pay the bills. The first type of conservative (the type that feeds lies) is exemplified by Jonah Goldberg, who in Renn’s view stands in for the “conservative establishment class.” Goldberg, Renn asserts, appears to be wealthy, in-demand, and propped up.

On the other side is The American Conservative columnist and author Rod Dreher. Despite a huge online audience, well-received books, and a powerful message, Renn says that Dreher is not nearly living as comfortably or as popularly as Goldberg. Why not? Renn answers:

…Dreher is putting out a message that religious and politically conservative leaders don’t want to hear. Pope Francis himself appears to not like the Benedict Option. Most of the Evangelical commentariat seemed to puke on it too. Both the political and religious conservative donor class don’t want to hear it either, other than those few backing TAC…

[Rod] seems to be cut off from the kinds of institutional support that would give his ideas traction in the real world and cause Christians to start mobilizing to respond to the situation in which we find ourselves. Much more than money, I suspect this is what frustrates Rod – that ideas like the Benedict Option end up institutionally marginalized and largely unimplemented.

Concluding, Renn brings the lesson home for his readers:

So, if you read a book or blog post, or listen to a sermon or podcast, and think that the argument it’s making is full of more holes than Swiss cheese, before writing a multi-part detailed refutation of it, ask yourself a couple of questions: 1. Whose position is flattering the intended audience or telling them what they want to hear, his or mine? 2. Whose position best aligns with significant institutional and financial interests, his or mine? If the other person’s work is strongly telling the audience what it wants to hear and/or serving powerful institutional and financial interests, then any factual or logical refutation is likely to be ineffective against it.

As the kids say nowadays, there’s a lot going on here. It’s worth thinking through the different claims specifically. But before I do that, I think it’s only fair to ask: Would Renn want someone like me to evaluate his arguments by the standard he advocates here? If I did that, what I would probably say is that Renn is himself compromised by the opportunities and rewards this kind of argument brings him. After all, shortly after this newsletter went live, Dreher himself featured it on his blog, something that—by Renn’s own admission—will drive thousands of readers to Renn’s newsletter, likely resulting in hundreds of new subscribers, followers, and supporters.

Renn has over 20,000 followers on Twitter. I have a little over 3,000. Renn has thousands of people who read him regularly, including influential folks like Rod. I have a very small cabal of readers, and a typical week for my blog is a few hundred hits. I doubt Rod Dreher knows who I am.

Is it reasonable, then, for me to conclude that Renn is offering this assessment of conservatism simply to curry favor with influential friends like Rod? Is it epistemologically just for me to infer that the reason Rod links to Renn instead of, say, me, is that Renn flatters him and I do not? Of course not. For me to think and especially argue this would not only be ridiculous, it would be a cynical intellectual move. It would be an especially petty kind of Bulverism. So in the end, Renn’s counsel about how to engage someone you disagree with fails obviously and immediately if you apply it back at him.

But what about his larger observations about conservatism and truth-telling? First, I think Renn is right about the difference between a conservative establishment and writers like Rod. I suspect Rod’s arguments in The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies resonate more with audiences who bring deeply religious sentiment, and big ticket Republican conservatism has largely stopped pretending to listen to religious conservatives.

On the other hand, Renn, like most other writers I’ve seen in the past few years, seems to be confusing what floats to the top of the conservative media lake with what is truly powerful and influential in right-of-center life. Dreher may indeed be toward the margins of the professional conservative media class, but on the other hand, Donald Trump is president of the United States, and the President achieved his power in some part by parlaying a narrative about American Christianity that is far more Dreher than Goldberg.

It’s not at all obvious to me that Dreher’s Christ-against-culture messaging is ignored by conservative elites because it is too uncomfortably correct. For one thing, there is no more powerful conservative institution in the US than Fox News, and Fox is quite obviously more interested in stuff like the war on Christmas than foreign policy. It’s more likely that writers like Goldberg and David French (who has likewise been a target for criticism from Trump-sympathetic social conservatives) simply do not believe Dreher’s approach is the most helpful or more realistic one. I’m very sympathetic to the Benedict Option and to Rod’s concerns about public schools, but there are times when Rod simply loses me: as when, for example, he gives far more attention to the inner workings of woke media institutions than to issues like police brutality.

These are all topics that conservatives should be discussing and debating freely. That’s why it’s disheartening to see someone like Renn posturing as if this is a black-and-white issue, made complicated not by facts but by mercenary people. Renn is right that flattery can be a powerful intellectual aphrodisiac, but he’s wrong to suggest that only certain people are vulnerable. Donald Trump’s successful capture of a huge swath of “character matters” evangelicalism is proof positive that political adultery is not merely National Review’s besetting sin. And if suggesting otherwise gets your newsletter linked by one of the most highly trafficked blogs in the US, I think that just goes to prove the point.

A little bit behind the scenes

I very rarely publish posts like this on the blog, but I’m going to this time for a couple reasons. First, as providence would have it the blog has gained some readers in the past couple of weeks, thanks to one post that set the all-time record for single day traffic. Second, it occurred to me that it’s been 2 years since I launched this site (though the previous 4-5 years worth of content were brought over from a different blog), and there’s probably a lot of people reading who have no idea who I am or what I do.

So, a little bit about me, and then a little bit about what goes on here.

I’m an acquisitions editor for an evangelical Christian book publisher. I have no particular “expertise” other than education in theology and several years working in editorial for evangelical institutions. My academic background is philosophy. I’m a “pastor’s kid” who grew up in the Southern Baptist convention. For the the vast majority of my life I’ve lived in Louisville, Kentucky, where I have just recently returned after three years in suburban Chicago. I was raised in a conservative evangelical household, but when I was 21 I  realized (through coming to grips with an addiction and its wrecking of my life) that I did not actually know the gospel and did not belong to Christ. During a moment of suicidal ideation, I heard God tell me clearly that he had died for me so I wouldn’t have to. At that point I believe I truly became a Christian.

God has abundantly restored what my own sin and selfishness destroyed. I have the greatest wife in the world, Emily, and we are blessed with two children, Charlie Lewis and Ruth Caroline. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, indeed.

Now, what’s this blog all about?

I’ve been writing regularly for most of my life, and blogging consistently for about 7 years now. For me, writing is a way to work out what I think. Only rarely do I write knowing exactly what I want to say; most of the time I think as I write, and the clarity I find through the process is very satisfying. I’ve been blessed to write for several outside publications, but I love the blog format for its ease, direct access to readers, and broad topics.

Most of my attention is given to the intersection of Christianity, cultural movements (not excluding politics but not emphasizing it either), and technology, especially social media. I’m a ‘generalist’ and I actually regret this most of the time. I don’t think the literary world needs more generalists, but alas, I don’t see this part of me changing any time soon.

What I most want to accomplish with this blog is to think through tough, knotty, emotionally fraught topics with clarity and humility. The title “Letter and liturgy” reflects an orientation toward the written word and the spiritual practice. For me the discipline of thinking well and saying beautifully is a spiritual activity.  I want to love God and love others through the written word. This isn’t a devotional or inspirational blog, but those are not the only kinds of writing that can love God and others. Sometimes the best way to fulfill the great commandment is to think well.

I hope nobody reading this blog thinks of me as a “teacher” in the ecclesiological sense. What you read here are the imperfect, incomplete musings of an observer. There is no substitute for the kind of authoritative biblical teaching that you get in thick membership with a local church. This may seem obvious, but in the digital age it must be said.

I try to write weekly, simply because that’s about all I can manage at this point!

Lastly: I’m very, very thankful for your reading. All of you. Seriously. It means a lot!

-SDJ

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Metaxas, Profanity, and Dignity

Eric Metaxas has been criticized after video was published online of his encounter with a protester in Washington, D.C. In the video, a man on a bicycle loudly chants, “F*** Trump, f*** you” in the direction of a line of people coming from Donald Trump’s speech for the Republican National Convention, a line that included Metaxas and his wife. The angle is somewhat obscured, but in the background of the frame Metaxas appears to hit the protester (though not hard enough to knock him to the ground).

The overwhelming consensus on Twitter, including among most of the evangelicals I follow, is that Metaxas took a cowardly cheap shot and is perhaps even guilty of assault. I’m not particularly moved by this argument. I don’t think Metaxas should have hit the guy. But moral indignation toward Metaxas seems to implicitly let the protestor off the hook for a behavior that, while increasingly common, is still hateful and destructive at its core.

Profanity has always been a fact of life, but what hasn’t is the cultural acceptance of profanity in general public spaces. Elite journalistic institutions, such as The Atlantic, now regularly print the unobscured F word, despite being the kind of resources assigned to school-aged children. Doubtless the editors would defend this practice as essential to accurately quoting sources. But that’s just the point: the idea that everything should be fully reproduced in a public space seems to me a serious error.

The profanity the protestor screamed at Metaxas and those around him was hateful and degrading. That its targets have probably heard such language frequently does not mitigate its nastiness, any more than, as Lewis once pointed out, the passage of time does not make sins of selfishness or deceit less wrong. The F-word has made a stunningly quick journey from cultural stigma to cultural mainstay, but that does not change its meaning or the imagery it is intended to conjure up. Until very recently anyone who shouted such a thing at a mixed group would have been publicly shamed at a minimum, and likely physically confronted.

It is of course ironic that such abusive language could cause no great stir from the masses on social media, in an age in which conversation is policed with such vehemence and strictness for other things. In five minutes of looking you can find thousands of words about the evils of using words or phrases like “handicapped” or “committed suicide” or “overweight.” No cultural offense is more universally understood than the racial epithet. It’s not that most people don’t understand the power of what they say to each other. We are not at all lacking for moral strictness in our speech.

So why do abusive expletives cause nary a twitch? The easy answer is that pop culture has made these words more common and watered down our innate response to them. That’s probably true. But I also think it’s probably true that the anti-neighborliness expressed in public profanity is embedded further than we realize into our social fabric. We police speech when it comes to race or disability out of an ethereal deference to “humanity,” but we unload crassness because we don’t actually care about the people next to us.

I love the way Trevin Wax put it in a recent article:

Having read much of G. K. Chesterton, I now look askance at anyone who seems to speak primarily in the abstract: “fixing the economy,” or “changing the culture,” or “loving humankind.” Why? Because it’s easy to succumb to self-righteousness when you pursue utopian visions in regard to great and massive things. It’s when you are faced with the smaller things and the people nearest you where you begin to spot your own flaws and diagnose your lovelessness.

The prevalence of public profanity might be a better measure of a community’s compassion than their repetition of egalitarian or inclusive vocabulary, because the latter may carry performative rewards while the former just spills out. Reciting a commitment to equality while using (or not caring when someone uses) sexualized expletives to attack and humiliate those we disagree with is transparent hypocrisy. The fact that we struggle to even recognize or respond when the latter is happening raises serious questions about whether our inclusive language really is virtuous, just like a president’s hateful and divisive rhetoric raises serious questions about demonstrations of “patriotism.”

Should you punch the next person who shouts the F-word at you? No. But there’s something to be said for doing something that expresses the dignity of human beings. There’s something to be said for getting angry when something that should cause anger happens.

I once watched a documentary about the famous TV encounter between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. I noticed that all of the talking heads in the documentary assumed that Buckely was grossly immoral for threatening to punch Vidal. Not one of them, however, expressed any outrage about Vidal’s calling Buckley a Nazi. I’ve always wondered: Maybe Buckley threatened to hit Vidal because he really was listening to him and taking him seriously. Maybe the rest of us think Buckley was crazy, because we really aren’t doing that.

Further up, further in

In April I gave a small PSA that I was stepping away from the blog for a while. Well, I’ve decided “a while” means up to now. Truth be told, I miss blogging, and I really don’t like only having Twitter as a regular outlet. I’m still prioritizing longer, more substantive writing than the 600 word blog post, but I think I’m motivated to try to strike that balance now.

More to come!

Homeschooling Is Not a Public Threat

Friends, I’m really humbled to have an opinion essay in today’s Wall Street Journal. I respond to a very disturbing feature in Harvard Magazine that uses tired and untrue tropes about homeschooling families to make a broad case for outlawing it. My response draws both on my experience of being homeschooled and the facts of homeschooling in the US. I hope this essay serves in a small way to help people think more carefully about a hugely important issue.

You can find the article here. My apologies if it is paywalled…though the Journal is running a special 1 month digital subscription for $1!

A Bit of Housekeeping, etc.

Hey friends,

I wanted to let you know about a couple things going on around here. If you’ve been reading this blog more than a week you’ll have noticed a pretty radical design change that I implemented a few days ago. Whether you love it or hate it—and I would understand both reactions!—I should say a little bit more about it, because the redesign is actually part of a greater redirection for the blog.

I’ve been blogging at this space consistently—at least 1,000 words every single month, and in the vast majority of cases many times that per month—for about five years now. Before that I was writing equally consistently at Patheos. Long story short, I’ve been writing thousands of words every month for the better part of 7 years. It’s been extremely gratifying.

But I have to be honest. I’ve gotten tired.

Blogging is difficult. It takes a regular application of thought and discipline. It wears you out. The rewards are rich, but they’re not always proportionate. For me, the rewards of blogging have slowly but noticeably been lagging behind the costs. My traffic has been down notably this year, and I think part of the reason is that newsletters and other email-based publishing have made blogs like mine less attractive and less intuitive. Traffic is not the only reason to blog, of course. But just to be honest, 3-4,000 words per month is a lot of work to do while you’re watching the stats nosedive.

But that’s not what I’ve become so tired. There are many other rewards to blogging. However, many of the rewards depend on what a writer wants to accomplish. For a while now I’ve had a slow burning feeling that I’ve accomplished basically all that I want to with my blog. The only direction for me from here, that I see, is to continue to churn out content while unceasingly investing in social media and trying to grow my platform through marketing. That direction is neither appealing nor plausible for me right now. So, all that to say, I need to make some changes.

The main change is that I will not be blogging for a while. Instead, for the foreseeable future I’m going to pursue writing fewer but more substantive articles for outside publications. Letter & Liturgy will stay exactly where it is, and I’ll pop in from time to time with links and updates, but the regular grind is stopping. The redesign serves this change.

I’m really excited about this. I think stepping away from the compulsion to post thousands of words of generalism every month will be good for my focus. To be transparent, I really need to stop prioritizing retweets and small spikes in blog traffic, and start prioritizing thinking slowly and deeply about (fewer) meaningful issues. As much as anything, this change is about cultivating a greater love in myself for writing and thinking, and choking out the love of constant publicity.

I’m so very thankful for the many encouraging comments I’ve received here and for the people I’ve been connected to through Letter & Liturgy. There’s no greater honor for a writer than to hear back from people who’ve benefited from his words. My contact info is now on the home page of this site and I sincerely hope you will keep in touch.

Looking forward to seeing you around!

The Rise of Skywalker

The ghost of inevitability has always haunted the Star Wars films. That’s true in the stories, where the word “destiny” comes early and often from the lips of the most important characters. But it’s also true in the structure and production of the movies themselves. Return of the Jedi ended the original trilogy’s story arc on a proverbial “good guys win.” Twenty years later George Lucas produced the prequel trilogy, three films that told a story to which everyone already knew the ending. And now, twenty years after The Phantom Menace, J.J. Abrams turns off the ventilator to a franchise whose fate has been sealed for a while. The Rise of Skywalker acquits itself well as an individual piece of Disney’s sequel trilogy, but even its strengths highlight just what a mistake these three films were from the beginning.

The Rise of Skywalker is an entertaining movie and offers genuine treats for Star Wars fans. In other words, it’s pretty much the opposite of its predecessor, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, a film that held its audience in contempt and seemed to be vying instead for the affection of the New Yorker‘s circulation list. Abrams has brought the series back to the fan-servicing, nostalgic mood of The Force Awakens. That’s both good and bad. It’s good because viewers who really like the non-Disney Star Wars films feel at home. It’s bad because it reminds us it was a bad idea to leave home in the first place.

The “Skywalker Saga,” as Disney has rebranded Episodes I-IX, was truly concluded at the end of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. To justify its continuation, Disney has had to invent one more Skywalker, walk back older plot points for no apparent reason, and supply a “surprise twist” that feels almost as contrived and ad hoc as something the last person in an improv group would cook up to finish off a skit.

So why should anyone bother with the Rise of Skywalker? Well, it’s a lot of fun. Abrams opts for a breakneck pace, literally zooming his characters from one world and mission to another. More ground gets covered in The Rise of Skywalker than perhaps all the other Star Wars films combined. And why not? The environments are dazzling, the action is exciting and well edited, and the movie builds up nicely to a climax that’s a lot better than it had any business being. The three leads, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaacs are in fine form. There’s a lightsaber fight atop a Death Star submerged in water. If you’ve got something better than that to do with 2 hours and 11 bucks, good for you.

But these three movies all serve one ultimate purpose. They highlight just how remarkable George Lucas is as a world-builder and myth-maker. His wooden dialogue and cringe-inducing love scenes are failures of execution, not failures of imagination. The Disney era Star Wars is a failure of imagination. People will laugh at Anakin’s dialogue in Attack of the Clones for years to come, but they’re going to watch it anyway. I can’t say I think the same of these movies.

Is Reality Only for the Privileged?

Is retreating from social media really a “privileged” thing to do?

Listen to this post:

Whenever someone points out the dangers of social media and recommends curtailing use or abandoning it altogether, a response I’m starting to hear a lot more often is that abstaining from social media is an expression of privilege. Though it’s not always made explicit, I think the idea behind this argument is that social media is a democratic tool by which many people express social and political opinions or perhaps engage in activism. Thus, social media has intrinsic value as a vehicle of “engagement,” including (and maybe especially for) ethnic, sexual, or economic minorities who might otherwise never be offered a platform to speak.

Calling on folks to cancel their Twitter accounts is therefore on one hand an implicit call for less visibility of these marginalized voices; on the other hand, it’s also a failure to see (or perhaps even a failure to regard) the positive effects of social media for certain kinds of people, vs. the relative comfort and lack of social or existential disruption that majority culture people would experience by deleting their accounts.

As someone who is actively trying to reduce and ultimately eliminate my social media footprint, I take this response seriously. If it’s an accurate and coherent objection, then my deletion of certain social media memberships and my thousands of words spent critiquing the technology are de facto failures to love my marginalized neighbors, and such failure demands repentance and a change of ways. I also respect this objection because it makes an objective claim of value on social media and doesn’t impishly retreat to, “Well, whatever works for you, just don’t force your opinions on people.” In other words, full-throated defenses of social media on the basis of privilege and marginalization are arguments that actually understand the seriousness of what social media critics are saying.

Nevertheless, I think this argument is deeply flawed. More than that, I think it’s flawed in the exact ways that we should expect ideas shaped by social media culture to be flawed. Let me offer a brief rundown of these flaws.

Flaw 1: This objection accepts what social media corporations say about themselves at face value.

One of the major indictments against social media is the knowledge we’ve gleaned over the past 13 years (roughly Facebook’s lifespan) about how these Silicon Valley companies design their products. We now know they’re designed to be addictive. We now know they’re designed to hit mental triggers that release feelings of intimacy and productivity. We now know that the CEOs and braintrusts of the major social media corporations tend to have disturbing views about everything from personal well-being to utopia. To sum up, we now know not to conflate tech industry marketing with the product itself.

The argument that social media levels the playing field and gives platform to heretofore marginalized voices assumes that the kind of exposure and “platform” that happens on social media is an unmitigated good kind. But to assume this means to assume that social media technology is what it appears to be. Is there a reason to assume this? What if the “platform” of social media is actually an algorithmic illusion designed to make users more dependent on the technology and in the process less likely to understand or even care about what cannot be experienced through it? What if 10,000 retweets send a chemical affirmation to your brain of being seen and heard, but in reality half of those retweets are from people who simply wanted to join in with their friends in RTing you, 1/3 are from non-human accounts, and the remaining 2,000 are a niche group who will neither do anything about what you said or even remember it after dinner? Let’s say all that is at least plausibly true. Would it be more accurate to say that Twitter has given you a platform, or that Twitter has rewarded your time on the site with a temporary dose of extra entertainment?

There are very good reasons to believe, as several media and technology critics are now saying, that social media culture is significantly disconnected from “real life,” and that what happens within social media culture is often self-referential and fails to escape the walls of algorithm. Assuming that’s true, we can’t say with any degree of confidence that the platform bestowed on anyone—regardless of race, gender, or class—is the kind of platform that can sustain and empower positive offline transformation. Instead, it seems just as likely that the addictive elements of social media, which translate into thousands of hours being spent on the technology every day by many of the same socially conscious users who might otherwise be doing something else, are mostly sunk costs.

Flaw 2: This objection assumes that the democratizing effects of the Internet are best mediated through social media networks.

Beneath the objection that social media abstention is an expression of socioeconomic privilege is another assumption about the nature of social media—specifically, that it really does challenge the privileged, platform the marginalized, and level the playing field better than the alternative online technologies. But this is an unnecessary and inaccurate assumption.

Measuring social media’s real-life effects are tricky. For one thing, “social media” doesn’t seem to be a monolithic entity with equivalent effects in every sphere of life. Facebook and Instagram seem to be better at helping people sell stuff, whereas Twitter is considerably more likely to affect what gets talked about in newspapers, magazines, and cable news. Which example of social media influence is more “real”? Obviously, it depends on what you mean.

The most important aspect of any social media platform is the number of users on it. But there are other, more significant things to consider, such as privacy, and it’s not at all apparent to me that the advantages of a highly populated social network should always trump concerns about user data. Someone might argue that Facebook is still worth using, despite its absolutely terrifying track record on user privacy, because of its massive user base and potential reach, but only a foolish person would argue that privacy is never worth missing out on being part of a huge network.

As it is, there are good reasons to think that the current configuration of the online economy is very broken, and that it would be better for everyone—rich, poor, white, black, straight, gay—if the Silicon Valley model were trashed and replaced with an ownership-driven digital commons. Again, you don’t have to cancel your Facebook account today in order to grant there are good reasons to question the wisdom of the social media corporations. Wise, kind, justice-oriented people are doing just that.

Flaw 3: This objection gets “privilege” backward.

It seems extraordinary to me that anyone would define privilege as “the inability or unwillingness to spend portions of my day typing out messages online for strangers.” While it may not be exactly right to say that social media per se is classed, it would definitely be fair to say that social media activism—the kind of activism this objection takes as incumbent on moral people—is an activity available to a small, select group of users. Plenty of American workers cannot even look at their phones during their work hours.

Twitter especially seems to be an online activity geared toward knowledge workers with surplus time in their day (i.e., privileged folks). According to Pew, 80% of all content on Twitter comes from 10% of the site’s accounts. In other words, what goes on in Twitter-land is dictated by a very small, very select conglomeration of power users, brands, and algorithms. Twitter reflects the experiences and views of working class Americans about as well as Lake Shore Drive does.

A large majority of tweets come from a small minority of tweeters

By arguing that social media silence is privileged, critics of digital minimalism reveal to what extent they have conflated a particular kind of sub-cultural pastime with basic responsible citizenship. This conflation isn’t only socially and economically ridiculous, it’s also hostile to the formation of an emotionally and spiritually healthy public square. Thinking, grieving, and praying in silence, away from the pressures to signal our virtues or vices in exchange for clout, is not an act of privilege as much as it is an act of humanity.

Whether you cancel your social media accounts is not as important as thinking and feeling properly toward these digital technologies. I humbly submit that one evidence we are failing to think and feel properly toward them is when we react illogically when they are critiqued. The architects of Silicon Valley are more than happy to make billions out of our neurological dependence on notifications. Everyone, from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged to the most privileged and powerful, should be more than resistant to hand it to them.

The Beauty of a Little Life

A eulogy.

On Tuesday I was at the funeral for my grandmother, Wilma V. James. Wilma lived most of her 95 years in an industrial town named Owensboro, Kentucky. She raised three boys and worked at General Electric for decades. She outlived my grandfather by almost 22 years. You won’t likely read anything about her other than obituary. Hers was a little, beautiful life.

Do we value little lives? Do we see them as beautiful? Perhaps not. It’s easy to find someone preaching to follow your dreams, to aim for the stars, to become somebody. It’s even easy to baptize the fear of obscurity with Christian lingo, so that the measure of a life’s worth becomes how “radical” it is. What’s not easy is to hear a little life, given to a little family in a little town, held up as desirable. So much of modern life seems to be about escaping, through whatever means available, smallness. This seems tragic to me. There’s beauty in that smallness.

My guess is that we don’t value little lives because we don’t value what God values. Reflect for a moment how much God loves the unseen and the seemingly “pointless.” Reflect on the planets in the visible universe that are uninhabitable, dark, cold, and remote. AS far as we know there are millions of planetary bodies that seem to be little more than floating landscapes. Have you ever thought about why God has made a universe and galaxies so enormous that we will almost certainly never even see most of it, let alone “use” or understand it? Perhaps it’s merely because God thinks such invisible, “useless” creations are beautiful. Perhaps it’s merely because He likes them. God likes what we cannot even perceive.

Perhaps we misjudge the value of little lives also because we don’t evaluate correctly. We all know how to quantify selling millions of albums or getting a six-figure advance or pastoring a 10,000 member church. We don’t know how to quantify feeding a family that turned around and fed another family, and another, and another. We know how to quantify being an “influencer” with a million followers, but we don’t know how to value parenting future parents of parents. In other words, we only see concentrated value, not generational value. This is the definition of failing to think in terms of eternity.

I wonder sometimes if it’s always been this way. Older generations seem to have more or less accepted the borders of their lives. Moderns have grown up on technology that promised a way of escape from the givenness of things. We’re upwardly mobile and connected. We can ditch town any time and become celebrities without leaving our living room. We don’t have to be here, we can be anywhere. A little life is thus all the more loathsome to us because it is all the more avoidable. Anonymity can be cheated with a smartphone and a free app. Insecurity can be mollified with the right filter. There’s no modern reason we have to stare down our fear of the “same old thing.”

The problem comes when I try to reconcile my grandmother’s life with  my obsession to escape a small life. How much blessing did she infuse into my life through merely her presence? How much was I shaped by the meals, the open doors, the simple “How are you doing” calls? She was not anywhere; she was here. She was here, in a small obscure life, for my Dad. He was here for me. Where would I have ended up if it had not been this way? Suddenly I wonder if the problem is that I want to be on the receiving end of a little life, rather than the giving end. Let me dine on the fruits of obscure love and kindness while I use everything in my power to become famous or significant.

I pray that as I contemplate my grandmother’s glorious, little life, my heart will begin to release its craving for stature and instead look with love at the people and places my Creator has put right in front of me. To see a little life as beautiful instead of punishment is an act of love: Love for others and love for Jesus, who makes the least to be greatest in his kingdom. Obscurity is not failure and simplicity is not tragic when they reflect the worth of the world to come. The corners of the universe are invisible now, but they won’t stay that way. They’ll be glorious in our new eyes soon enough.

For Grandma, they already are.