Insights: My Substack Newsletter

Hi friends,

I wanted to let you know about a transition in my writing. For the foreseeable future I’m going to be using Substack to publish new, regular stuff. Some of you may recall that I sent out a few Substack newsletters around 2019-2020. After trying that then going back to traditional WordPress blogging, I’ve decided that Substack is a better future.

I’ll say more about this decision later in a future post. But for the time being, I would be extremely grateful if you would head on over to my newsletter page and subscribe to new posts. I’ve already written a post up that tells some of my story and explains why I think the newsletter format works best today. If you get updates from Letter & Liturgy via email, you will want to subscribe to Insights to get future writing right into your inbox.

Hope to see you there!

“I’m beginning to think I’ve been duped.”

A post-Christian culture cannot own up to mistakes. It can only blame-shift to survive.

To me the entire story of America and COVID-19 is such a densely fogged event that I honestly don’t know how we’ll ever learn anything from it. I’m not sure how you extract meaningful lessons from a disaster about which there is almost no uniformed agreement: whether regarding causes, or Who Was to Blame, or how to respond, or even what the accursed virus even is! I am, however, coming around to one conclusion. I’m starting to believe that at some point in this whole saga at least 50% of the information that politicians, pundits, and even health officials were operating on was incorrect. As the virus and its suffocating political and cultural effects linger far longer than most of us ever thought we or the nation could endure, it’s becoming clearer that important people with their hands on important levers have been getting important questions wrong. 

This should not be a particularly scandalous thing to say. People get stuff wrong all the time, and important people with official channels are not less human than the rest. I don’t even think it’s particularly important or relevant that, say, the CDC was wrong about masks, or that WHO was wrong about the nature of the epidemic. Yes, those blunders had consequences. But what relevance do those mistakes have now? No amount of recriminations can undo loss of life or livelihood. Excepting those who may have intentionally misled the world for some kind of gain, I don’t see the point of making COVID “about” the people or institutions or governments that got stuff wrong. 

But I’m starting to realize that increasingly few people agree with me. To say, “I don’t think it matters that [group X] got this wrong” is to be met immediately with incredulity, perhaps even suspicions of malice. It seems to me that we’re losing, as a culture, the category of error, and we are replacing it by greatly expanding the category of malevolence. In the political and social context of today, nobody is just wrong. To be wrong is “actually” to be ignorant, or naive, or untrustworthy, or unqualified, or just plain wicked. It seems like just about everyone is operating under the assumption that meaningful errors are too implausible to be honest, and people who make them are too smart/elite to have made them sincerely.

This is one of the fundamental assumptions behind social media’s cancel culture. Every misstep on social media, even a thoughtless joke, is transposed into a situation of “speaking truth to power,” and hardly anyone bothers to spell out what kind of “power” the object of the outrage mob actually possesses. Regardless, the impossibility of restoration for someone who’s been canceled online is integral to to the nature and function of online mobs, because the most important element in a cancel culture is the shared belief that nobody except genuinely bad people could ever do something that would garner a mob in the first place. There are no “mistakes,” there are only disqualifying sins…because nobody who was worth keeping around would/could say/do that

***

In one of my favorite journalism movies, Shattered Glass, there’s a key moment where Stephen Glass (a reporter for The New Republic) is on a conference call with another magazine’s editors, who are bit-by-bit destroying the claims Glass made in a piece. Glass fabricated the piece almost entirely, but nobody knows this yet.  The story of Glass’s downfall is true and the dialogue in this scene is allegedly almost word-for-word lifted from a real conference call. Watch to the very end:

As Glass realizes that his story is combusting, he makes an amazing pivot: 

“I’m beginning to think I’ve been duped.” 

To appreciate the magnitude of this sentence, you have to understand that nobody in that conference call assumed that Glass made it all up. They assumed instead that he had used a shady source for the story and had reprinted the source’s descriptions without actually verifying them or doing actual journalism. For a reporter to be exposed like this would be almost career-killing. Almost. Just at the moment Glass seems on the verge of a confession (of some sort), he despairingly admits to having been fooled. That’s a journalistic sin, but it’s not the journalistic sin. 

Glass knows that if he confesses to making anything up, he is done. He’ll be fired and unlikely to have a career in journalism again (in fact, that’s what ends up happening). So instead of owning the discrepancies, he owns the naïveté. He’s been duped by a malicious source, and his mistake was trusting, not lying. 

The gambit ends up working, at least temporarily (only later does Glass’s editor realize that the story has no legs at all, and that even the details Glass swears to are phony). Glass knew the meeting would end only one way: with nobody believing the story he had written was legitimate. The question was why would they believe that. There was only one “why” that would let him keep his career, his job, his reputation. If he confessed to that, he might survive. 

Bad input. Wrong information. “I’m beginning to think I’ve been duped.”

***

Of course, Glass’s problem was that he was always lying. But not everybody gets their work or their views destroyed for the same reasons. Some people lie, but a lot of people just miscalculate. They misconstrue what they see, or they impose a presupposition onto the evidence, or they just miss facts. The question is not how to respond to somebody who is clearly lying—almost everyone would respond the same way—but how to respond to someone who is clearly, yet honestly, wrong. 

And here’s where the cultural dynamics of making repentance impossible matter. To the extent that people feel that owning up to their mistakes will only result in being destroyed without mercy, they will almost always try to frame themselves as victims. If you dangle people’s jobs and reputations on a string in front of them, they’ll get the message. There are only two options: either they are bad, or they are victimized; depraved, or duped. And that’s what we’re seeing at work in a lot of contemporary culture and politics. Everyone can either be perfect, or else deceived. 

This ecosystem makes it extremely unlikely that any valuable lesson will be learned from things like COVID, or the storming of the Capitol, or QAnon. You see some exceptions, like this wonderful and refreshing piece by Hunter Baker. Yet the fact that Baker’s piece is remarkable is evidence of what I’m talking about. What possible lessons will there be from the aftermath of an online conspiracy cult whose claims have been coddled by people trying to own the libs, if those people think that confessing their moral misjudgments will send them into exile? What are they going to do? The less courageous ones will keep their heads down and persist and hope the political weather changes. The more courageous ones will look for somebody who told them something wrong. “I was duped!” That kind of posturing is worthless beyond description. Imagine the healing and restoration that would be possible if more of us took Hunter Baker’s approach and said, “Yes, I was wrong to ascribe bad motivations to those I disagreed with. That was my moral failure and for it I am sorry.” 

I’ve got a strong feeling that in the coming months and years we’re going to learn that a lot of powerful people made a lot of miscalculations and misjudgments about COVID-19. We know some of them already. If all you’re looking for are the missteps that confirm your priors, you’ll find them! But I’m assuming that people who believe the gospel have different motivations. I’m assuming that those who are forgiven can look at others with forgiveness. I’m assuming those who sing that their worth is not in their righteous deeds can ascribe to their political opponents worth and value that doesn’t bottom out with a mistake. 

We must bear witness to this. American society is fraying and public trust is evaporating. I’m convinced that a major reason for this is that post-Christian culture jettisons the concepts of atonement and forgiveness and consequently has nothing constructive to do with the realities of moral guilt and responsibility. Sometimes evangelicals only talk about the sexual libertinism of post-Christian society, but the reality is that, at its core, post-Christian society is ruthlessly legalistic and punitive. A punitive spirit does not elicit honest confession and restoration of trust. It elicits blame-shifting in the name of survival, and doing victory-laps when the walls close in on your enemies. A culture defined by this is not going to learn from the horrors of 2020. Neither will a church. 

Why cinemas are worth saving

It is a truth universally acknowledged that movie theaters will soon be a relic of the past. In fact, the prediction has been held by cultural observers for so long that it has become a self-fulfilling punchline, like Yogi Berra’s quip that nobody goes to a restaurant that’s too crowded. Everyone with a brain knows cinemas are dead. And yet, every summer for the past decade Hollywood’s hitmakers have set new records for weekend box office receipts. Nobody goes because it’s too crowded.

But predictions of the movie theater’s demise feel more likely right now. COVID-19 has ravaged the movie industry: taking some of its largest multiplex chains down, wrecking havoc on the Hollywood production year, and causing even enthusiasts to wonder what the future might hold. This fall, Disney—without a doubt the most important entertainment company in the world—announced that going forward their film division would concentrate on streaming and limit the amount of resources given to theatrical releases.

The significance of this announcement is hard to overstate. Disney is arguably the only studio in Hollywood whose pivot away from cinema and toward streaming could single-handedly affect the survival of the moviegoing industry, an industry almost cripplingly dependent on the company’s tentpole franchises such as Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars. Theatrical releases won’t disappear overnight, of course, but it’s clear that the executives sitting at the controls of the entertainment world believe the future is apps and monthly fees rather than concessions and reclining seats.

Obviously a lot will depend on how the pandemic behaves in 2021. What I know is this: If cinemas do indeed close by the thousands next year, this will be a cause for mourning, and for asking why a Western world so adept at creating billionaires did not try harder to save a truly valuable cultural artifact.

***

Contrary to what the utopian technocrats of Silicon Valley would have us believe, the ability to consume something without leaving the bed is not, in fact, a self-evidently desirable ability. History is written by victors, and the history of the 21st century will certainly extol the virtues of watching film and television on handheld devices, powered by invisible satellite signals that require no tethers to either place or persons. For most experiences of the internet, this seems obviously preferable. The whole point of the ruthlessly immediate nature of social media is to access it in real-time, so that everything from the breakfast on one’s table to the view from one’s desk can be shared and authenticated by the online world.

Movies, however, are different. Films are compacted narratives that we exerience only by entering into them at an intense and emotional level. Unlike the viral TikTok video or the Instagram post, movies insist on our attention and do not co-exist peacefully with simultaneous rivals. Films resist our attempts at multi-tasking, and anyone who likes watching movies at all knows enjoyment is directly proportional to attentiveness.

This is why, for example, movie theaters are darkened, so that the light coming from the story itself is the sole source of illumination, the only viable candidate for an audience’s gaze. This is also why almost every cinema—with varying levels of enforcement—bans the use of cell phones during screenings. When moviegoers talk about such distractions “breaking the spell,” they do not mean that a ringtone or a small blue glow remind us that our world is real and the world on the screen is fiction (as if we forget that). The spell is not the myth itself but our emotional investment in it. The spell is attention.

It’s important to understand just how rare physical spaces that cultivate serious focus and attentiveness are becoming. The smartphone has invaded American cultural imagination so effectively that no public event, even a funeral or tour of Nazi extermination camp, can exist above it. The idea of merely gazing at or listening to or being present at something, without immediately reaching for the iPhone to record, capture, or just chase away the silence, is rapidly becoming quaint. Distraction no longer competes with the experience, it completes it.

In an essay for a 2016 issue of First Things, writer Marc Barnes recounts witnessing the crowd at an art exhibit almost uniformly point and click their camera phones at paintings without actually spending any time physically lingering before them. He writes:

One could hardly argue that these pictures were taken for the sake of memory. There was no activity within the fifteen-second rite to be remembered—nothing outside of the picture-taking itself. It would be equally unconvincing to argue that this kind of photography is an act of record-keeping, as if my generation enters museums with a mind to making digital backups. There are always better versions online, and besides, any digital copy can only be a reference to the work itself. Who would want a reference to an object only looked at for a few seconds? I could only conclude that it is not for the sake of a picture that the picture is taken, but for the sake of the taking. The desire is not for a captured picture but for capture.

The smartphone technology we almost involuntarily reach for puts itself in between us and the experience we think we are preserving. As Barnes observes, truly contemplating what we try to capture could unsettle us, as all great art tends to do. “A click, and the thing has been dealt with,” Barnes writes, “as if by snapping a shot the painting has been contained and stored, no longer shaming the heart for its hardness or threatening us with an experience that would topple our control.”

***

Of course, not everything at the cinema is actually great art. But the fact remains that the cinema is one of our society’s last remaining attention habitats. The darkness not only draws our eyes forward but makes us loathe the appearance of a blue glowing screen in our periphery. A dimmed theater makes the addictive nothingness of the smartphone look as obnoxious as it actually is. If someone down near the front persists in using their phone, you can complain to staff, who will (in most cases) enforce the rules. Why? Because in a world where mental overload and constant distraction are accepted as given and even promoted as “productive,” the cinema stands almost alone as an institution of resistance, an assembly where people are taught early and often that it can be a virtue to not know everything that’s “going on” outside and to lose oneself in something transcendent.

Why is this so valuable? It’s not only that resisting distractions enables us to enjoy things like movies more. By virtue of internet-free physical environments that foster focus and make centralized attention natural, cinemas offer a chance to contemplate art more deeply and even more accurately. In his stunning 2010 book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr presents a compelling argument that the internet has fundamentally changed reading—not just where and what we read, but how we read, how we receive information and emerge from the literary experience. Whereas the printing press empowered Western people to read individually, putting comprehended meaning through a solitary rational process, the internet conditions readers’ minds to “juggle,” until the sentence, the hyperlink, the comment, and the next tab all bleed into one sub-rational impression.

The result is not just that the Internet-shaped reader struggles to remember what she reads, but that she struggles to think rationally about it, to experience it singularly. What’s true of books is at least equally true of film, and almost certainly more so. Again, not all films are worthy of deep contemplation, but the point is that deep contemplation is the most meaningful way we can encounter literature or movies, and perhaps the single greatest obstacle to deep contemplation is the one sitting in our pockets. The library is the closest thing we have to a physical habitat structured to protect the reading process. Yet almost every library in the US has free Wi-Fi, and laptops and phones are now as common on library desks as books. The cinema is thus not only unusual in its imaginatively insular liturgy, it is radically unique. Even most church services are not as hostile to digital distraction as the cinema.

***

A future without cinemas is almost certainly a future with movies that are written, produced, and edited with the influence of digital distraction. As the center of the movie watching experience relocates from the theater to the tablet or smartphone, filmmakers will have no choice but to assume the inevitable: that audiences will be watching these films with one eye, as they scroll social media, peruse Amazon, or check their email with the other. As the line between television and film blurs further, and as the movie industry realizes its dire need to replace the lost revenue from cinemas, advertisements will likely begin to colonize feature films, and studios will ensure the movies’ runtime will accommodate commercials.

If the human mind and heart are nothing more than advanced computers, whose parameters can and should be expanded by an escalating level of input, then this future is not worth worrying about. The convenience of screening movies at home is too compelling. Who’s really worse off who can live-Tweet seeing the latest superhero film, or catch up on work emails while taking in a flick? If movies are merely one more medium among dozens to amuse us for a few seconds in between others, there’s no argument against a world without dark, confined, crowded rooms.

On the other hand, if the stories of movies are formative experiences for us that can give us courage, sympathy, or faith; if those backlit narratives can remind us how to love well and fight hard, then it means something to have one place, just one kind of place, where we can hear these tales speak to us clearly without the tyrannical white noise of digital immediacy. This seems worth saving.

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.