Dabbling

A particularly brilliant paragraph in Helen Andrews’s book Boomers:

Like Wilde, [Camile] Paglia has dabbled in decadence as if it were a game. The pithy paradoxes, the valorization of glamour, the celebration of sexual daring, have to her been a way of striking a pose, a way to annoy all the academic frumps and feminist scolds…Paglia’s tragedy, like that of her fin de siecle forebears, is that she toyed with forces that were much more dangerous than she imagined them to be, and they turned on her in the end.

This describes such a huge portion of the ideas peddled in American culture. In fact, it describes entire genres of books. How much writing by “exvangelicals” exists for little reason other than the desire to stick a finger in the eyes of parents and youth pastors? How much theology is now taken very seriously that originated as little more than a way to annoy all the gatekeeping old people who “just don’t get it”? 

Here’s a reliable principle: when your ideas come from a part of you that is more sure of which people you dislike than of which things are true, those ideas are likely 90% false, and the 10% you might get right will be absorbed irredeemably into the falsity. Because ideas are dangerous things, and mistaking them for social currency is a very dangerous mistake. 

Ill of the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes what you really need is to see greatness

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

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

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

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

“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. 

Inconsistent

Inconsistency abounds more than ever, but people’s reaction to it has all but extinguished.

I’ve noticed something lately. Pointing out that someone is being inconsistent in their logic, or is applying a standard to X that they don’t apply to Y, has become a pointless observation. I could have dreamt it, but I seem to remember a time not too long ago when a demonstration of inconsistency was considered a compelling rhetorical move, one that shifted the burden onto the inconsistent party to explain how their beliefs could be taken seriously if they weren’t consistent. It’s different now. Inconsistency abounds more than ever, but people’s reaction to it has all but extinguished.

You can point out to a certain kind of Republican-voting evangelical that their political worldview makes a big deal out of the ethical character of some politicians, but not others. I’ve been doing this in various capacities for the better part of four years. You know what I have to show for it? Zero. The inconsistency is there, and it’s irrefutable—often displayed vividly by exact quotes uttered just minutes apart. But the charge of inconsistency never lands. It’s met with a shrug, or a protest of “So you’re OK when the other side does this, but not ours?” The same thing happens when you show a left-leaning evangelical that their politics of abortion—”a tragic reality we cannot fix by legislating morality”—don’t square with their politics of healthcare or immigration. It’s not that they can’t see the inconsistency. It’s that they don’t see why they should care

In my everyday life most of the times I see the death of inconsistency, the stakes are arguably low: political discourse, tribal language, the stuff of which takes are made. But I’m currently reading Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, and the inconsistency she documents is not only egregious, but (quite literally) violent. One of the common sentiments among trans-affirming psychologists and physicians whom Shrier interviews is that a teen’s self-reported feelings of gender dysphoria *must* be accepted as true, regardless of outside evidence. Shrier, along with the dissident medical professionals she writes about, points out that this “whatever the patient says about herself is true” mentality cannot lead anywhere good in medicine. Just as the opioid crisis was empowered by easy access to drugs via over-deferential prescriptions, the teen transgender craze depends on medical professionals who refuse to dig deeper than a patient’s expressed desires and intuitions. 

As Shrier reports, however, there’s no use in pointing this out to the counselors and therapists who shepherd teen girls toward puberty blockers and surgery. It’s not that they don’t see the problem; Shrier gets one trans-affirming doctor to admit that teens don’t really know what they want or who they are.  This doctor would not be compelled by his trans-affirming worldview to prescribe Vicodin to a hungry-eyed 14 year old who insisted, between sniggers, that he was clinically depressed because of a mid-life crisis. The doctor recognize what was going on. So why doesn’t he try to stop teen girls from binding down their breasts and chemically sterilizing themselves?

The answer is that, well, he just doesn’t. Inconsistency is not the moral and philosophical alarm that it once was. The “values voter” storms the Capitol. Why? He just does. The humane cosmopolitan laughs at the poverty and disease of those whose politics he abhors. Why? He just does. And if no amount of pointing this out can move the conscience, we must infer that the problem is not lack of awareness, but a settled reconciliation. The inconsistency is not invisible. It’s just been made at home.

Maybe we can learn something from this. To the degree that we expect revealing inconsistency to be a catalyst for repentance or change, perhaps we have been working under a deficient anthropology. As I’ve said repeatedly, traditional evangelical “worldview” education has its place and many strengths, but one of its massive problems is its effort to philosophically systematize human nature. When you are taught that people can not live differently than their religious or philosophical beliefs dictate, you simply have no possible response when you find out that, actually, those people DO live differently than their beliefs. They live beneath them—the Christian theologian commits adultery or fraud—and over them—the materialist recognizes injustice. 

Pointing out inconsistency would be sufficiently effective if people’s ideas and behavior were neatly packaged together in self-evidently mappable forms. But that’s not how human nature works. The theologian did not commit adultery because of his deficient understanding of sex or marriage, he committed it because he wanted to, and his desires did not consult his intellectual commitments for permission, because desires do not do that. 

Our emerging public square is an arena of competing desires. As bad as fake news and tribalism are, they are symptoms rather than causes. Tests of intellectual coherence and consistency are valuable but they are no match for visions of the good life that are shaped by dysfunctional or inordinate desires. Confronting the spirituality of expressive individualism with intellectual gotchas, keeping a chart of secular society’s hypocrisies and special pleading—we can do it all day to the same negligible effect.

Perhaps the gospel needs to permeate our intellectual discourse more than it has. Instead of holding up inconsistency as a worldview defeater, then writing blog posts about how hypocritical the media is, perhaps the more constructive way is to constantly interrogate American society: “What do you want here? Why does this matter to you? If what you believe in didn’t keep its promises, what would you do?” Perhaps we should engage culture as if ideas come from desires moreso than syllogisms. 

An Unlived Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Moore Was Right

There is so much that can and must be said about today’s surreal events in Washington. I am not up to the task for most of them. But there is one thing I want to say, briefly, but forcefully.

Russell Moore was right about Donald Trump. The events of the last several weeks, and the last few days in particular, make this unquestionable. He was right when he said that evangelicals were making a Devil’s bargain by excusing or baptizing Trump’s debauched persona and wicked rhetoric. He was right when he said that character matters. He was right when he said that a leader like Trump is fundamentally untrustworthy and that this lack of honor cannot be papered over by self-reported political ideas.

Moore was also right when he said that Christians who championed Trump’s candidacy were putting themselves into a position to own his sins and lose moral legitimacy in the eyes of a world that hadn’t forgotten their “values” during the Clinton years. Moore was right, and the numerous images flooding in of people holding “Jesus Saves” signs while they cheer the storming of the Capitol prove that he was right. Just as sober minded conservatives are recognizing that their ideological movement owns this terrifying display of anarchy, any sober minded American Christian must recognize that the church in the US now owns it too. I’m not saying this is fair or logical. I’m saying it’s reality. And I’m saying we knew it was going to happen.

But for saying all this, Moore was not only debated and criticized, he was threatened, punished, and bullied. The infrastructure of the Southern Baptist Convention failed to defend one of its most respected entity heads and kowtowed to the voices of churches and leaders who should have been led, not deferred to. Moore was not the only evangelical Baptist who warned us about Donald Trump, but he was frequently the most consistent, most visible, and most Bible and gospel-centered voice. He didn’t just talk about the politics. He talked about the church. It was the church that Moore feared would buckle under the moral sludge of an unqualified President. But it was the church that attributed the most outrageously false motives to Moore. It was the church that told itself Moore was a closet liberal. It was the church that found more trustworthiness in an unrepentant, twice-divorced Playboy billionaire than in one of its own pastors.

And now, tonight, family members text me that people in their churches were at the protests, bragging about how the “capitol was ours now.” Church members. Not professional protesters, not QAnon cultists. ChristiansChristians with Bibles, and Sunday school classes. Christians storming the halls of Congress on behalf of a lie, peddled by a lover of lies. 

And I’m sitting here, reading these texts and seeing these Bible verse placards, and thinking, “Moore was right.” And somebody needs to say so.

Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned tonight, it’s that not saying something can carry a higher cost than you ever thought. 

48 Hours

I’ve decided to put into practice a habit I’ve dabbled in on my only social media membership, but never committed to until now. Going forward I’m going to delete anything I tweet after about 48 hours or so, with the exception of links. I’ve seen others commit to the practice of periodically deleting their older Tweets. You may be able to guess the reasons people would do this if you know much about online culture. My own reasons are intuitive in this way, but with an added concern that pertains especially to me.

Here’s why I’m deleting my tweets every 48 hours or so:

1) The big reason is that nobody who is regularly active on Twitter is wise to let old Tweets exist publicly for an indefinite amount of time. A disproportionate percentage of people who get viciously torn apart by an online mob do so on the basis of something they posted in the past, and the overwhelming majority of these victims did not get any criticism or flak at the time they posted it. In some cases they should have been criticized. But in many cases the reason the victim of the rage mob gets attacked now but not then is that the anger of the Internet is downstream from its temporal neuroses. The reason that joke X was inoffensive in 2015 but morally unacceptable in 2020 has nothing to do with the joke, but everything to do with the audience. The words didn’t change, the audience did. And because social media is literally designed to make anger and addiction easier and self-awareness harder, nobody stops to consider this, and the result is a deep dishonesty masquerading as righteousness.

There’s no reliable way to outsmart this, but there are ways to make the threat to yourself much worse, and one of those ways is to Tweet thousands of times across several changing years and just hope something you said when the context was self-evident is not seen by someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t like you today.

2) But on the other hand, this isn’t wholly the fault of bloodthirsty snipers who quote-tweet those they dislike into oblivion. Part of the problem is the way Twitter works. Twitter (and social media in general, but I’ll focus on Twitter) is epistemologically gaseous; its contents are momentary in the most extreme sense of the word. For all practical purposes Twitter is a cast and crew commentary, not on a piece of art or even life but on the minutia of current events, ideas, fads, etc. Even that may be going too far. Twitter is really a commentary on commentary, a second-by-second content machine that creates cultures and “moments” out of the ether. I’ve seen people refer to what happens on Twitter as a “conversation,” but no mentally healthy person would tolerate a real-life conversation that moved at the speed, the randomness, or shallowness of Twitter.

Aside from links to outside websites, every single Tweet is a creation of the moment, and every Tweet’s legibility depends utterly on how much users are absorbing the ambient moment. When the moment passes, so does the truthfulness, the helpfulness, the coherence of the Tweet (quotations, such as from Scripture, resist this somewhat, but even then the felt applicability of a quote depends on the moment. And there are plenty of Bible verses that will never and can never be put on a Twitter meme). While I’m sleeping, my Tweets lose the context that made them (at least in my view) accurate and reasonable.

Deleting Tweets is thus a recognition of the limits of real-time commentary. It treats the discourse of the internet more like the dry-erase board that it really is, instead of the printing press that it is not.

3) [Here I’m going to talk entirely to myself.] A strong desire to “go viral” is much like a craving for pornography: it is overwhelmingly strong in the moment, but it leads to very bad places and it never, ever satisfies. The single most alluring thing about Twitter is when a Tweet gets a lot of Retweets and Likes, and the notifications keep coming. This dopamine hit is so powerful it is the single biggest reason that Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and a lot of other men are billionaires.

But going viral is perhaps the single most destructive desire in our cultural discourse right now. Until recently I had never asked myself what the difference was between a conspiracy hocking news site that twisted truth for clicks, and my own carefully worded Twitter dunks that I hoped would get a lot of attention. I’m not making stuff….but then again Alex Jones wasn’t always making stuff up either. Almost every media personality who has become wealthy by saying stuff that isn’t true started off trying to say things they thought were true. The truth didn’t stop being compelling, it just stopped being as rewarded.

I want to go viral. I want a million followers. I want the neural and career rewards of being a “thought leader.” I want that so much that I cannot be confident in myself as to what I would not be willing to do to get them. Already I see the cracks. A tweet that lives for only 48 hours is my best defense. If it resonates with a lot of people in that time, great. But I can’t afford to be willing to chase it.

The Unlost Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year, friends.

Is America Marching Toward Totalitarianism?

Today Christianity Today has published my review of Rod Dreher’s newest book, Live Not By Lies. It’s a complicated book, so I tried to write a complicated review. Fun, right? 

Here’s an excerpt: 

Dreher’s point seems hard to argue in a world where card-carrying liberals such as J. K. Rowling can face enormous backlash merely for believing that a man cannot be a woman; where Mozilla executive Brendan Eich can lose his job for having the same view of same-sex marriage that Barack Obama had in 2008; or where the editor of The New York Times op-ed section can be forced from his role simply for publishing an essay—Republican Senator Tom Cotton’s brief for deploying federal troops to quiet this summer’s domestic unrest—that some progressive Times staffers found objectionable. Dreher has good reason to suspect that American progressivism has embraced ideological purity tests in a manner that recalls the abuses of Marxist regimes, and doubters should confront the growing chorus of concern from people well outside stereotypically conservative camps.

If this were the extent of Dreher’s vision, Live Not by Lies would be an accurate if unremarkable book. But the book’s message is not simply that progressives have become intolerant, but that this intolerance—coupled with widespread cultural decadence and the ascendancy of surveillance capitalism—is openly threatening the lives and livelihoods of traditional Christians. Dreher compares the “location services” novelties from Silicon Valley to the Communist Chinese system of “social credit,” warning that survivors of murderous regimes recognize the face of their foes in the emerging American society.

Read the entire review here. My gratitude goes to Matt Reynolds at CT for inviting the review.