Do You Trust Your Doctor?

Between the absolute insanity of American politics and the catastrophic toll of COVID-19, it seems fair to think that public trust in experts is bottoming out. The political sphere is little else but weaponized polarization. Elected officials as public servants is a quaint idea; now they are tribal figureheads in America’s increasingly unwinnable culture wars. Coronavirus, meanwhile, has exposed the depth to which partisan commitments shape our cultural spirit. No one is exempt: not the conspiracy theory-embracing right, not the scornful and elitist left, and certainly not a compromised media class. Years of education and grooming for leadership or journalism are being wasted in the service of the cheapest imaginable political brownie points. We could say, with some justice, that America is currently without any morally qualified leadership.

But if the unraveling of public trust is a compelling analysis, it’s also more complicated than that. A few months ago Alan Jacobs wrote an excellent blog post on Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Anthony Fauci. It’s important to keep in mind that this post was written in March, right when most states were scrambling to form a response, public fear and anxiety were peaking, and the threat of mass death was real and urgent. This was, obviously, not the correct time for Limbaugh to play his part in what Tim Nichols dubbed “the death of expertise,” and Alan took him to task fairly and astutely.

I sent Alan an email about his post and he ended up publishing what I sent him. I’m reposting it because it alludes to a theme that I think bears more fleshing out:

You know what the most interesting thing is about Limbaugh’s COVID commentary? The fact that he was recently diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. It stands to reason, does it not, that a man who desperately needs the best experts and credentialed information in this season of his (possibly fading) life would see the value of expert testimony? But in my experience, this actually has little effect on people. My family tree is full of people who practically live in the hospital and eat prescriptions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but who are confident that Sean Hannity knows more about anything than any scientist, lawyer, or even theologian. The death of expertise is so nefarious precisely because it’s resistant to cognitive dissonance.

I still think what I told Alan is true and a fair observation. But I’ve started suspecting that I drew the wrong conclusion from it. The fact that QAnon readers go to their checkups and take prescriptions may not mean that the death of expertise is hypocritical, it might mean that the loss of public trust is a different kind of loss than I supposed at first. None of my family or friends who think COVID-19 is entirely or mostly a hoax refuse to see doctors. None of them refuse to get prescriptions, or receive exams, or obtain insurance. If their physician says, “Let’s get your blood pressure under control,” they don’t say, “That’s not what Sean Hannity says.” But that’s because it’s their doctor. If a Biden-appointed chairman of the FDA were to tell them to get their blood pressure under control, they might (and probably would) suspect Big Brother is at it again. But their doctor is different. Their doctor is for them.

I think it’s very significant that COVID-19 has been covered in American journalism almost exclusively with a political angle. One of our church friends is a nurse in the Chicago area, and for the last 6 months she has kept us updated on her work with families infected by coronavirus. She has seen brutal, heartbreaking cases. But she has also seen entire families get infected with mild or even no symptoms. She knows the names of many people who’ve died alone in an ICU, but she also knows the names of children for whom missing school poses a greater threat than the virus ever did. Lindsay interprets what she sees medically, not politically, and her perspective is not easily leveraged in support of any narrative. The mutual church friends we have who lean toward the “hoax” thesis listen to her carefully and I’ve watched their views change as they did so. Why? Because they trust her. They may not trust the medical establishment, and they certainly may not trust journalists, but they do trust their nurse friend.

I think this means that the “loss of public trust” needs to be understood in a specific way. Something real is being lost, but it might be that what is being lost was not entirely well-kept in the first place. To the extent that public trust and the “death of expertise” describe real phenomenons (and they do!), it seems like they mostly describe phenomenons that were only possible in the recent past, and that came to us downstream from technological and sociological transformations that marginalized the role of place and asked for a generic, detached kind of civic life. In other words, I’m not sure anymore that people are supposed to greatly esteem expert cultures. Perhaps trust is a more precious commodity than that, which costs the price of knowledge, proximity, maybe even something like friendship.

And perhaps when public trust is demanded for people and institutions that grow more and more remote, and more and more beholden to invisible stakeholders, that kind of trust is far more fragile and prone to manipulation. Yes, by the rules of strict logic, you need trust in universities and medical boards and licensing laws in order to trust your physician that tells you to take better care of yourself. But those universities and boards and laws are not your doctor. They will not take your call and they will not look at your pain. And sometimes, that’s all it takes.

Power and the Blood

The Mirror and the Light is a magnificent novel that finishes a magnificent series. I tend to struggle with contemporary fiction, but Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell is so rich, so elegantly written that I couldn’t stop at any point. The depth of what Mantel has achieved is simply stunning, nothing less than a Tolstoy-esque artistic accomplishment. It’s a work of genius that I expect to reread for years to come.

What’s most interesting to me is the character of Cromwell himself, and how Mantel portrays the effect that power can have on someone unable to overcome their private sense of powerlessness. Mantel’s Cromwell used proximity to Henry VIII to further the cause of Protestantism in England, and in that he becomes much like Thomas More. But Cromwell also leveraged his authority to prop himself over against the slurs aimed at him because of his low birth. In this he becomes like Anne Boleyn: threatened into treason, manipulating the world around them to stave off fate and walking into it unawares. The three books in the series each end with beheadings: Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, then Cromwell. Mantel’s insight seems clear: these three lives are really one life, absorbed by the black hole that is power.

Can you do the Lord’s work in Henry VIII’s way? Mantel mostly steers away from explicit theological reflections on marrying the throne and altar, but her narrative brilliantly shows how the latter is almost always at the mercy of the former. One of Mirror’s best scenes is Henry’s “debate” with a Protestant “gospeller,” Robert Barnes, who denies transubstantiation. Cromwell supports Barnes; they both know the bread and wine are that and no more. Henry, though he has named himself Supreme Head of the church and executed those who object, still holds Roman sacramenentalism. Because Henry believes it, it is treason to deny it. Cromwell knows he could lend his support during Barnes’s trial, but he stays silent. When Cromwell is locked in the Tower on (questionable) allegations of treason, his fellow Protestant Thomas Cranmer has the opportunity to support, but likewise wilts. The halls of earthly power require self-preservation at the same junctures which the gospel calls for self-loss.

What’s unsettling about Mantel’s Cromwell is how ordinary he is. Some readers have objected to her sympathetic portrayal of a “hatchet man,” but I think that’s the point. We assume that only certain kinds of people can be twisted by the powers of their office. We assume politicians and judges are just born more prone to corruption than the rest of us. But lesson of the Wolf Hall trilogy is that people with humane, even evangelical aspirations can be seduced by the throne, a seduction that is fundamentally about survival (as Cromwell’s thoughts frequently betray). Cromwell, the abused son of a blacksmith, is an incredibly loyal person, but eventually that loyalty is leveraged in self-service so often that it cracks.

I’m not fond of simplistic takes about Christians and politics. It’s too easy to dismiss political power as irredeemably corrupting and insist that no true believer have anything to do with it. But this ignores both history and justice. On the other hand, Mantel’s journey through the rise and fall of Cromwell is a compelling parable about what usually happens to the human spirit when it is pressed by the demands and luxuries of authority. The world of the Tudors is of course a world in which “religious liberty” does not exist. The English-speaking world was Catholic and then it was Protestant, on the word of a capricious, power and sex-crazed sovereign. Contrast this with the founding of America. For all their (and our) moral failure, the founding fathers knew they were a group of potential Henrys, governing a society of would-be Cromwells. The beheading scaffold ends where the First Amendment begins. When theology sits on a throne, it almost always drops the gospel to pick up a sword.

Yet we are left at the end of The Mirror and the Light with a paradox. Many have been executed, but William Tyndale’s New Testament has gone forth. The king of England presumes to rule the church, but justification by faith is preached on the streets. Behold the mysterious sovereignty of God, who raises up kings and cuts them down, but whose church withstands the gates of hell.

Experience, then Ambience

The story of Western society’s relationship to the Internet so far is this: experience, and then ambience. For a couple of decades the internet was an experience a person had to seek out through physical parameters. You needed to be at a computer. That computer needed a connection. For most people these two parameters terminated in place: a specific place to use your computer, and a specific place for that computer to connect online—at phone modems first, and then broadband cables. In other words, for most of the last 20 years access to the internet has been filtered through technological and geographical barriers. If you didn’t have a computer, you didn’t have internet. If you had a computer but you didn’t have an available connection (or better yet, if someone else was chatting on the phone during the days of dial-up!), you didn’t have internet.

Those barriers were part of what made the internet an experience. You went online. Remember those commercials that used to run? “Hey kids, grab a parent before going online.” There it is: the verb going suggests a contained experience, one that could be anticipated, realized, missed, etc. You were either online or you weren’t. You were watching a movie, working, going to school, eating lunch…and then after that experience, maybe you would find time to go online.  And then after you logged off you would do something else, until the next time you went online.

Thus the internet was an experience that was enjoyed, even depended on, yet also contained. But now the internet is no longer an experience. It is an ambience. The internet has few parameters to mediate it. It is instead the default mode on which most of us operate. The idea of “going” online is absurd. We are online. The internet is not so much something we go do as it is something we are. We are on Instagram. We are streaming music. We are reading the news. And we are doing it everywhere and anywhere, with no geographic parameters and only one physical mediation (a phone signal). Thus, the internet has invaded every conceivable social setting, every space and slice of time. The internet is ambient in the car, ambient in the airplane, ambient in waiting room, ambient in the office, etc. Ambience, not an experience.

This seems pretty significant to me. If technology forms and shapes us, then logically it follows that the more access technology has to us, the greater its formative effects. Technology that is mediated through place and time has formative effects that are more controllable or manipulatable: i.e., in the experience-age of the Internet, moving the family PC into the living room instead of someone’s bedroom undermines addiction and secrecy, but it also undermines the idea that I should have constant access. It undermines that nervous tick we are developing where if we read something good or see something funny we instinctively reach for our phones. The internet is perceived to be more important to our lives, not because it actually is but simply because it is more present.

Ambient-age Internet, however, does the opposite. It generates a low hum of anxiety and boredom as brains become dependent on the web’s neurological matrix of change and feedback. It recalibrate how we think, tangling thoughts into sub-literate knots. And it gives the impression of the greatness of minutia, as fringe ideas and people take advantage of our lowered epistemological barriers and turn themselves into memes. The experience-age of the Internet was not without problems, but while it lasted we at least remembered that this technology was finite and fickle. Walking away from the PC was a dose of reality. In the ambient-age, there is no walking away, and the doses of reality much harder to get—or want.

A quick piece of writing advice

Writers, at least in my experience, tend to overestimate their ability to write but underestimate their ability to observe. Literary skill is a precious jewel, but it is not as valuable to the reader as a drawing his attention to something he has missed. 

The generalist model of blogging is the dominant one in evangelical circles. “Let’s engage culture with the gospel,” it goes, and “culture” often means whatever the Twitter hive or coastal media is chatting about. And usually the folks who get in on this kind of writing are focused on their vocabulary, organization, and speed with which they get content up.This is unfortunate, for two reasons. First, it results in a lot of writers who sound exactly alike. Second, it encourages writers to ignore their immediate surroundings—to ignore that which they have the greatest ability to actually see and think about—and focus on what they think will get them noticed. 

Now some writers will sense this and interpret it as a call to memoir. That’s…not what I mean. A lot of memoir gets written out of the mistaken assumption that a person’s life experiences explain the world. I’m actually talking about something close to the opposite. The most powerful writing I come across is writing that sees something I ignore or forget about, and, with beauty and clarity, opens my eyes so that not only can I see it as I’m reading, I can see it long after I’m done. This can be anything: a theological truth, a place, a person, an idea. The question is not, “Is this a topic we Need to Discuss?” The question is, “What do you see in this, why does it matter that you see it, and how can everyone else see it too?” 

Aspiring writers should receive this as really good news. You don’t have to try so hard to get respect from your writing. Just stop that; it wouldn’t give you what you want even if you thought it had. Don’t write to get noticed; you won’t be good enough most of the time, and even when you are, you’ll be forgotten as quickly. But the people who are worth reading are usually people who have an ear to something few others are listening to. You don’t have to be a genius to make something truly good. You mostly just have to pay attention. 

Why wisdom is so difficult

From where I sit, one of the most urgent needs for everyday people, especially believers, is wisdom. Actively cultivating wisdom is difficult even when such a pursuit is universally acknowledged to be worthwhile. How hard is it when almost everything in a society is encouraging the abandonment of wisdom, the suspension of careful thinking, and outsourcing virtuous belief to political tribes? I fear losing wisdom is a loss that compounds interest. The less of it you have, the less of it you can recognize.

Why has wisdom become more difficult to cultivate? Here are three main stumbling blocks I see:

1) The spiritual problem

By this I mean more than unbelief and the noetic effects of sin. Yes, those are real and devastating. But they’re also evergreen; they’re never not problems. The spiritual problem I have in mind here is the loss of common spirituality and community virtue. Call it polarization, call it identity politics, call it what you want: it’s a fundamental loss of shared religious and moral commitments. I’m not pining for “civic religion,” but it does seem to me that the alternative to Christ-less public spirituality ought not to be social disintegration.

The reason cultivating wisdom is threatened by social fragmentation is that wisdom assumes its own possibility. To be wise is to look at disparate things in life and understand them coherently. In an age of expressive individualism, we despair of the possibility of understanding. It’s why we stop thinking and start asserting our own right to self-definition. A friend of mine recently sent me this passage from Charles Taylor:

That is what is self-defeating in modes of contemporary culture that concentrate on self-fulfillment in opposition to the demand of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity. These self-centered ‘narcissistic’ forms are indeed shallow and trivialized; they are ‘flattened and narrowed,’ as Bloom says. But this is not because they belong to the culture of authenticity. Rather it is because they fly in the face of its requirements. To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance, and hence to court trivialization.

2) The technological problem

On this issue Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows has been a revelation for me. We simply do not talk enough about technology’s potential to radically alter public epistemology. One of the points Carr makes in the book is that the printed reading and internet reading position reader much differently. Printed reading, especially after Gutenberg, centered the individual reader and asked him to come to terms with ideas and arguments that could be presented in a linear structure. Internet reading, however, de-centers the reader and centers the disparate elements of digital text: hyperlinks, comments, etc. Internet reading blurs the lines between receiving meaning and giving back interpretation, which is one reason why trolling is effective at altering people’s perceptions of an idea.

As daily reading shifts almost entirely online, linear thought is threatened by “loaded” digital forms. An embedded link can transform the context of an argument. A “related article” or algorithm can imply logical connections subliminally but illegitimately. Comments, tweets, and “Likes” manipulate our intuitive response to written words. This is all noise—noise that handicaps the authentic pursuit of wisdom. Instead of becoming wise we are often becoming marketers. Minutia dominates our emotions. We see enemies where algorithms tell us to enemies. We lose wisdom in the weeds of the online jungle.

3) The tribal problem

Our response to the above problems leads to the third wisdom roadblock: hyper-tribalism. In the absence of thick communities of shared value, the internet atomizes and manipulates our thought, making judgments simultaneously more difficult and more instant. The only logical thing to do is to preserve our energy by letting political categories think for us. We “sort, lump, and dismiss” ideas instead of engaging with them. We lose the ability to communicate as words become hijacked by movements. Everything is ideology, ideology is everything.

Biblical wisdom is about perceiving the way God designed the world and patterning our thought and life accordingly. Wisdom is living in reality: the reality of divine providence, grace, judgment, mercy, and design. All three of these roadblocks to wisdom plunge us into unreality. We are left adrift by fragmentation, tricked by technology, and rendered passive by tribalism. I’ll say more later about this. For now I’m trying to look more soberly into my own intellectual and spiritual habits to see traces of these problems. I know they’re there. They don’t have to be.

Gentle and Lowly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impotent Rage

Here’s Freddie Deboer with a point he has made many times before, but perhaps never so eloquently:

I would say at a glance that the contemporary left is defined fundamentally by both a lack of meaningful power and a corresponding tightening of the grip on the meaningless power it does have. The more we cannot get reparations, the more we rename buildings; no end to mass incarceration, but recasting of cartoons; no seats in the Senate, but oh, how we make the Poetry Foundation shake…. And the question that we’re left with is, if we never stop tightening our shaking grip, will our reach ever exceed our grasp? Do we have short arms, or are they only bent from the strain of grasping in such impotent rage?

This is such a good question…and not just to progressive leftists. What do you think would happen if we swapped out certain words in that paragraph and turned into a question for, say, Christian conservatism? It might look something like this:

I would say at a glance that the contemporary religious right is defined fundamentally by both a lack of meaningful power and a corresponding tightening of the grip on the meaningless power it does have. The more we cannot get Roe reversed, the more we call out media hypocrisy; waning evangelism and theological education, but protesting COVID-19 masks; no institutions creating Christian culture-makers, but oh, how we can trigger the libs …. And the question that we’re left with is, if we never stop tightening our shaking grip, will our reach ever exceed our grasp? Do we have short arms, or are they only bent from the strain of grasping in such impotent rage?

Hits close to home, right? The more I reflect on it the more I can’t stop suspecting that a large swath of conservative evangelicals are in a similar position as the leftists Freddie describes. Genuine cultural influence, meaningful institutional power (not just the power to appoint judges—an unreliable perk, as we’ve seen this month)—these things elude us. Baptisms keep declining. For every healthy, biblically literate church there are 4 more where Father’s Day is the least attended day of the year. Christian media, such as music, is often aggressively banal. Our cultural engagement is reactive, caught at opposite polarities of either total appropriation of secular culture (to own the fundies) or heavy-handed worldview exercises (to own the libs). The closest Christians come to a rigorous, relevant expression of principle that commands the attention of the public square is a Jungian psychologist.

Here’s what I think might be going on. Similarly to how Freddie’s fellow leftists feel politically impotent, many conservative evangelicals despair of their prophetic power. The Left processes their failure by redirecting energy to symbolic causes, trying to gain in the arena of words and names and celebrities what they feel they keep losing in the arena of policy. Likewise for religious conservatives: the Trump era represents not an attempt to re-Christianize America as much as an acceptance that we’ve lost the first battle we wanted to win (a regenerate public square). Despairing of the church’s power, religious conservatism has, like the Left, turned its attention toward victories that seem more doable: owning the libs, triggering the media, preserving 20th century cultural inflections, and having “Merry Christmas” printed on Starbucks cups. In this understanding, evangelical outrage over meaningless minutia is not arrogance, but defeatism.

This is why I don’t anticipate the recent Supreme Court losses to inspire much reevaluation of things. If the above thoughts are close, the Courts are not downstream from evangelical strategy. Rather, the current state of the church reflects acceptance of the Courts. The most pressing issues facing the church, such as racial reconciliation/justice, require spiritual revival, and it is spiritual revival that we’ve already punted on. Thus, the current status quo will continue until there’s a radical un-acceptance, a rejection of defeatism and a new conviction that the fix isn’t in, the game hasn’t already been decided, and the kingdom really doesn’t depend on the things we thought it depended on for so long.

Somewhere along the way we stopped believing gospel-shaped people really could change the world, so we stopped worrying about making gospel-shaped people. Maybe we ought to stop looking at The Washington Post and New York Times’s scoreboards because they were always showing the score of the wrong game. Impotent rage is an equal opportunity employer.

5 Questions with Jake Meador

Five questions with the editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy.

I’m continuing a new series I initially started via newsletter. I’m bringing it over to the blog for now. Today I’m asking Jake Meador, editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of In Search of the Common Good, five questions about writing, ideas, and life.

1. How would you explain Mere Orthodoxy’s platform to someone who had never heard of it?

The cheeky way is to say that we have been defending word counts and nuance on the internet since 2005.

The more serious and longer way is something like this: We’re a Christian review of ideas focused especially on politics, theology, and culture working from a mostly Protestant perspective, though we do publish Catholic and Orthodox writers as well. Why do we publish? I think this is my best short answer: Christian discipleship is, partly, learning to see the world as God sees it—and God says the world is good, something he loves. This world is worth knowing, but knowing it truly is difficult. Mere O exists to model Christian habits of thought that reflect the complexity, seriousness, and humor of the world. We also want to present a consistently and pervasively Christian account of theology, politics, and culture to a broad audience. If we can operate as a mostly Protestant outlet generally adjacent to First Things or Commonweal, I’ll be pleased.

2. In 1 or 2 sentences, can you express the main idea of your first book, In Search of the Common Good?

We live in a fracturing society defined by loneliness, anxiety, and listlessness. Living in such a society creates enormous challenges for Christians, but also presents us with a unique opportunity to model a still better way to our neighbors, if only we would have the courage and commitment to truth to embrace a life of ordinary Christian discipleship.

3. Who are your 4 most important influences when it comes to theology + society? (aside from Scriptural authors)

Wendell Berry is obvious for anyone whose read my work. Berry taught me about natural law, conservation, and the goodness of creation. I could tack C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien on here, but I think what really happened is that Berry gave me the broad framework that I needed to actually see what Lewis and Tolkien are up to. So many of us grow up with Tolkien and Lewis that I think they often appear to us in this very familiar, pre-defined shape that basically just conforms with all my priors that I have brought out of childhood and into adulthood because their books are just baked into my life and thought. After reading Berry as an adult and coming back to Lewis and Tolkien I was amazed at how much I missed in both of them—their radical conservationism (I’m loathe to say ‘environmentalism’ because it’s an anachronism, but at minimum both of them would be hardcore crunchy cons if alive today), their traditionalism around sexuality, and the centrality of humility and ordinary faithfulness in their imaginations. The Scouring of the Shire is a radically anti-industrial chapter in Tolkien’s work, for example. And in The Last Battle one of the first things we see in Shift that tells us about his badness is that he wants to import foods that don’t naturally grow in his home place and he wants to chop down a bunch of trees. Those themes were always there with both of them, obviously. But Berry gave me the eyes to see it. So I’m just saying Berry for this point and assuming Lewis and Tolkien within the broader influence of Berry.

Martin Bucer is next. He was a mentor to Calvin in Strasbourg in the late 1530s and early 1540s and especially had a large impact on Calvin’s approach to the work of pastoring. He was also a great preacher and theologian in his own right and was particularly strong at trying to foreground love of neighbor as being central to the reformed cause in Europe at the time. The arguments for reform for Bucer did not necessarily hinge on justification or sola Scriptura, although he obviously affirmed both of those things, but rather on the call God gives his people to take up the yoke of Christian discipline in service to God and neighbor. The Reformation cause for Bucer gets filtered through this concern with simple Christian piety and Christian love. There’s a letter he wrote to a friend he wrote immediately after hearing Luther for the first time and he says something to the effect of “I’ve heard the man whose theology completes Erasmus’s work.” So Bucer rejected the Rome of his day because he saw it as failing in its call to Christian love. So he has a very different route into the broad set of ideas we associate with the reformation relative to Luther. Bucer also saw the work of creating Christian society as being an essential and inevitable outworking of Christian love, which is another way in which he has influenced me, I think. I was a pretty convinced Hauerwasian until I picked up Bucer. Bucer was the first one to knock some cracks into that foundation for me.

Bucer and Berry are the two that have probably shaped my mind the most and for the longest time. These other two are more recent influences, but they’re the ones I’m thinking about the most right now, I think.

The first is Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus. What I find so compelling about him is the deep way in which he ties together our commitment to truth and commitment to neighbor. One of his encyclicals is called “Caritas in Veritate,” which means Love in Truth. I think so much contemporary Christian writing is fueled largely by sentiment. You get this in a lot of progressive evangelical writing, of course, but often the progressives are simply mimicking what they learned from more conservative evangelicals from the megachurch movement. I think you can draw a pretty straight line between 90s era seeker sensitive evangelicalism and something like Jen Hatmaker’s exvangelicalism today in that both are driven by a set of concerns we often associate with marketing and advertising–it’s image, branding, and so on.

What I love about Benedict is that he doesn’t care about any of that. He’s a relentlessly serious thinker who focuses all his seriousness on God and God’s creation. And so he wants desperately to know God and to love neighbor in light of what he knows of God. So there’s a studiousness to Benedict’s writing that is compelling to me. There’s also a breadth to it—Benedict was actually called “the green pope” long before Pope Francis ever received that moniker because Benedict spoke so extensively on the Christian call to environmental stewardship. And I think, perhaps because Benedict is simply much older there is also a serenity to his work. His work has the feel of having been written from a posture of prayerfulness and careful attentiveness to God rather than man that has been sustained for a very long time. And all of that makes the experience of reading him quite distinctive.

Finally, the last name–and he’s my newest and the one I’ve read the least of so far but who I find (so far) irresistible as a thinker–is John Webster, the great English theologian who died a few years ago at age 60. Webster does all the same things for me that Benedict does. He’s so captured by what he has beheld in his own walk with God that this astonishment radiates out in his theology. Reading Webster is one of the most intoxicating things I can think of and it’s not because of his style. It’s because when you read Webster you are always aware that you’re reading a man who has mediated deeply on the deep things of God.

I think part of the reason I’m drawn to people like them (and Oliver O’Donovan has a similar appeal to me) is that when I look around in the US right now, I see so much bad faith, so much politicking, so much lust for power. And it’s all so very ugly and the dissonance between all of that and what I find in Webster and Benedict is jarring. And there’s a certain sense in which I think that dissonance has been there in my mind for five years now and I’ve spent this whole time trying to work it out. But it’s been framed this way–the gap between the minority of people who seem to take truth seriously and the vast majority–basically since late 2015.

In December of 2015 when Trump was becoming clearly established as the GOP front runner, my dad spent three weeks in the ICU due to a brain injury. He’s now living at home with my mom, though he is fairly limited in what he can do. And the juxtaposition of those two experiences has conditioned my mind in certain ways, I think. You would not believe the number of visitors my dad had. Actually, I’m not sure dad would believe it either because he was in a coma the whole time and has no memory of them. But it was so striking to see how many people wanted to come by the hospital to see him, to talk with mom and I, and to tell stories about him. The gift that both my parents gave me was daily proof that nothing mattered in this life other than the truth—and the truth is that we are made to know and love God and, as an act of love for God, to also love our neighbor. They gave me that single-mindedness.

As I was watching the GOP (and many prominent evangelicals with them) begin its slide into relativism and hypocrisy, I also was seeing the fruit of a single-minded love for God that willingly paid whatever price such fidelity might demand. My parents’ faith cost them in all kinds of ways. Yet it would have been unthinkable in our home growing up to suggest that we betray principles for convenience or to advance ourselves. I saw my parents take unpopular stands to defend abuse victims and homeless people, amongst many other things I saw them do because of their faith. And I saw the fruit of their fidelity over the course of my dad’s injury and rehabilitation.

So as I look around right now and try to just orient myself personally as well as lead my family and lead this online media institution I run, I’m desperate to find writers to read who have that same single-mindedness, that fixation on God that so overwhelms all other considerations such that compromise would be as unfathomable to them as it was and is to my parents. I find that in Webster. Watch him give his papers on the doctrine of creation. This is a man doing Christian theology while constantly aware that he is talking about God before the face of God. It lends such a weightiness and reality to his work. I want to read people who have that kind of engagement with the good, the true, and the beautiful. And I know with both Benedict and Webster that that is what I will always find.

4. You’re an editor, a full time employee, an author, and a husband and father of children. What’s a personal discipline or productivity practice that’s been helpful for you?

Being able to function reasonably well on six hours of sleep and having a wife who is understanding of what I’m doing? I don’t know. There aren’t tricks. I’m trying to become more regimented these days because Mere O is busier than it’s ever been, my family is busier because we have four kids now, and I’m writing a book. So I’ve set up a note taking app called Bear that I use to track daily work. I use Trello to organize everything I do at Mere O. But the tools only get you so far. I think the bigger need is availing oneself of the ordinary means of Christian discipleship and trying to draw those resources into your work, which is something I struggle with constantly because I am a very independent person and am still young enough that I can often feel fairly invincible and as if I can do anything.

Anyway, I think if you are disciplined, focused, and serious (and I am only one of those three things consistently, to my regret) then I think you can get a great deal done. Cal Newport’s work is probably worth mentioning here. Deep Work is good, but Digital Minimalism is great. Oh, and on that note: I also use the Freedom app to lock myself out of social media whenever I’m really needing some focused time to get work done. So I guess my tools for work are some combination of Scrivener (book writing), Bear (short-form writing and note taking), Trello (task management), WordPress (publishing Mere O), Google Docs (editing), and Freedom (focus aid). But the tools are mostly indifferent, in my opinion. They’re a means to an end. The bigger struggle for me is trying to cultivate the discipline and love that is required to sustain a serious work load and to also express those virtues in my life offline, which is often the more difficult task.

4b. Could you give a brief window into the book you’re writing right now?

Yeah. So if In Search of the Common Good is about the call to Christian neighborliness during a time of breakdown, the next book is about what the long-term outworking of Christian neighborliness ought to be. If a group of Christians are faithful together for a long time, how does society change? What kind of society should those Christians be working to promote and sustain? So this book is trying to paint a picture of what Christian fidelity looks like when realized on a social level rather than an individual level.

5. What’s the Lord teaching you right now?

Discipline, patience, and trusting God to work, I think. I’m an impulsive, fairly aggressive person in many ways and there are good things that come from that, but also a lot of bad. Marriage and parenting force you to slow down and be patient, which is something I struggle with. Carrying the workload I’m carrying right now forces you to be disciplined or else you simply cannot get all the things done that need to get done. So I’m trying to be more strict about my time management and am also trying to create some more defined and structured routines that govern my day to day work.

Sentences and Movements

Explaining what you mean is a virtue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!