Never the demons

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

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

Never the demons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never the demons.

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.

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. 

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. 

It’s Time to Move On

Donald Trump has occupied the evangelical imagination for long enough. Both those who did nothing else but #Resist and those who turned him into an avatar of Christian politics contributed to an imaginative captivity that has succeeded in doing nothing but creating new enmities and churning up old ones. For four years the preeminent sorting within evangelicalism was not about the gospel or how we live it out, but Pro Trump vs Never Trump. I can’t help but wonder if that is what will reverberate to ill effect longer than 99% of Trump’s policies or rhetoric: that we who believe the dead come to life were enthralled by the most pitiful exhibition of American polarization. Did we really have nothing better to do?

I’m not really sympathetic to the response, “Politics is about love of neighbor, that’s why we fight!” Yes, politics is about love of neighbor, but blasting your pastor on Facebook or trying to get people fired from their jobs on Twitter is not politics. I’m also not too sympathetic to the idea that evangelicals and conservatives were writing their own death warrant by criticizing a president who wasn’t afraid to tell the woke enforcers to get lost. There are other ways to engage with enemies of free speech, and we know this because (ta-da!) the gospel came to a people who were not “free” to advance a new religion. The First Amendment wasn’t conceived by reality TV stars who “told it like it is.” The Trump moment in American history was, and is, and always will be, about Trump.

That’s precisely why it’s such a tragedy that so many evangelicals have been unable to see beyond it. The odds were always very good that America would get a new president in 2020. Why didn’t that reality tame our tongues and discipline our time? Why was there so little “temporal bandwidth,” so little effort to imagine an imminent American culture where the person we were most willing to torch our institutions and our friendships over simply was not in power anymore? It’s as if in a moment of acute amnesia we forgot that 2012 was also the “most important election of our lifetime,” as was 2008, 2004, 2000….

Now he’s been voted out. Who knows what role in our clicks-and-ratings media jungle Trump will play? Probably one we can’t predict. My question is, “Why should we care?” I hear a lot about “the media” in regards to why Christians should be very concerned with how our 45th president was treated. The same media that ridicules religious believers as unscientific rubes while cheerleading the emasculation of children for the sake of ideology is the same media that relentlessly criticized and undermined Donald Trump’s presidency. I take the point. But if the last four years prove anything at all, they prove that the obsession many conservatives and evangelicals have with the media is not one rooted in reality. Even those analysts many loathe at CNN do not determine elections (they didn’t in 2016….right?). Even those New York Times columnists who despise you and your family and everything you believe cannot actually do anything about it. They are the biggest fish in the bowl, nothing more.

I talk a lot nowadays about Christians engaging culture from ahead rather than behind. The Trump moment In evangelicalism is the proof we need of how bad it can get when we engage culture strictly from behind. Not only do we let elite media institutions dictate our agenda, we allow right-wing opportunists to co-opt it. A Christian cultural engagement cannot simply be slapping theological vocabulary onto our hottest takes that own the libs. Aside from decidedly not being what the Bible says, such an approach is doomed from the start. It will cycle out every 4 years, a slave to electoral maps and exit polls, frozen forever in the tyrannical “now” of digital news. 

It’s time to move on. Not just from pro-Trump vs Never Trump, but from this worn out effort to feel actualized as Christians by the winds of power. Let’s not be taken in like this again. We don’t grieve as those without hope, so why should we live like them? 

On Conservative Flattery

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding, Renn brings the lesson home for his readers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Enemy? Which Doorstep?

It’s impossible to read this piece by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and not think that anti-racist activism is in serious trouble of going wildly off the rails. I would encourage any reader who feels invested in advocating for racial justice to read Friedersdorf’s long retelling of a complete meltdown inside a very progressive New York school board meeting. It’s an astonishing narrative that gets more disheartening the longer it goes on.

On the other hand, it’s also impossible to listen or read to the testimonies of many pastors across the US, especially the South, and not think that American churches are in serious trouble of fomenting a deep and deeply spiritual racism. That’s disorienting. Which narrative should I buy: the narrative about elite progressive institutions slouching toward a woke form of segregation? Or the narrative about a conservative evangelical culture that appears unwilling to preach the Bible at its own culture of white supremacy and Neo-Confederate ancestral worship? Which is the real problem?

It depends on where you are.

A media age upends many things, but one of the first is place. If TV and radio dislodged political awareness from its local roots and biased it toward “the nation,” the internet burned the root entirely. In the world shaped by the internet all eyes are trained on that which is national and global. Narratives are useful to the degree they paint in broad strokes and give a sense of omnipresent problems. What most of us mean by “culture” is huge. We mean millions of people, saying and making and doing something on a massive scale. Our heightened consciousness of this kind of large-scale culture is almost totally engineered by media technologies.

And in that heightened consciousness, we tend to confuse what is most depicted with what is most real. Our concern is disproportionately directed toward things that loom large in the media hive, because that’s where our awareness of The World comes from. This is what I mean when I say that many evangelicals often engage culture reactively, from behind. Here’s the way I put it last year:

 [E]ngaging culture by centering one’s intellectual orbit around what comes out of elite journalism can lead Christians to perpetually express the public implications of our faith in the direction of people least likely to heed our message, and on current events least likely to be urgent in actual churches. In other words, if your idea of culture is dictated to you by The Atlantic, you might think the most important thing you can talk about as a Christian is why polyamory is sinful, or why Drag Queen Story Hour is a moral outrage. Assuming, though, that your local church is unexceptional, the odds are incredibly good that suicide, depression, smartphone addiction, and sexless marriages are much bigger issues for you than those. If however the agenda for Christian thinking is being set by elite media, concentrated in affluent coastal bastions of progressivism, the witness of evangelicalism is always from behind—reactive—and never from ahead.

Here’s the thing: You very well may be in a cultural context in which something like Drag Queen Story Hour is the most pressing moral issue on the docket. You might, for example, be an employee of public library that is considering hosting such an event. You might be the parent of a child who unexpectedly attended one. You might be a pastor of a church in a very progressive city where members are being asked for their opinions on it. But my suspicion is that Christians who talk most voluminously about DQSH are not in any of these scenarios. The actual life context they’re in is one dominated by anxious and depressed teens, porn addicts, dysfunctional marriages, 14 year olds being pressured to send naked pictures of themselves…and racism.

I’m guess I’m mostly talking to myself here, because when I read Friedersdorf’s piece I come away convinced that much anti-racist activism is going to create enemies out of allies and drill resentments and mistrust deeper into American culture. But when I talk on the phone with a friend who was fired by his church for saying that George Floyd should not have been killed, I don’t feel this way. I think evangelicals have failed on the topic of race so spectacularly that their failure has soaked through the fabric of society to the point of tearing. So which thought is true? Are the excesses of woke-ism going to tear us apart, or will the failure to address racism?

Well, both. Both theses have evidence to support them, and both are compatible. My point is that two things can be true at the same time, but in different places and because of different things. When a New York school system meeting finds members outraged that a white man can hold a black infant, that tells us something important about that meeting, what dynamics were present, and what that outrage may mean for other people close to those dynamics. It’s completely legitimate to infer that something in that meeting was broken: either, as Friedersdorf argues, the interpersonal laws of charity and goodwill, or, as someone like John McWhorter would argue, the actual beliefs about race and justice. We can come away from reading about this meeting dutifully concerned that a harmful ideology reigns among some New York school boards.

But that truth doesn’t cancel out others. We can also come away from watching Republican primaries dutifully concerned that a major political party appears to have surrendered wholly to racist conspiracy mongering. We can come away from watching American evangelicalism horrified at the vacuum of prophetic leadership on racism and public justice. From where I write, this is the pressing issue for most Bible-preaching ministers. The majority of pastors reading this blog have churches that are probably not reading White Fragility and How to Be Antiracist. Those congregations, especially the men, are more likely reading Breitbart and hateful email newsletter blasts from “Christian Youth Brigade.” The enemy of the doorstep is not the same enemy as the one that sits on a New York school board. We fail to see this only because we look with one eye closed.

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.

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.

On the Theological Backchannel

We’re not the same people offline as we are online. That’s why we’re online in the first place.

If you’ve never read Freddie DeBoer’s essay “Of Course, There’s the Backchannel,” read it right now. Particularly if you’re somewhat interested in the disorienting culture of social media, the essay is a fascinating reflection on the lengths that modern people go to, especially politically conscious people, to craft an online identity that may be totally at odds with who they are offline. If you’ve never experienced this in yourself or in someone else, you probably will before too long. Read the essay all the way to the amazing ending.

I’ve thought about Freddie’s story quite a bit since reading the essay a couple years ago. I don’t know that we fully appreciate just how powerfully life on the internet affects how we feel and think about everything. Because it is largely self-contained and requires no physicality or length of time to mediate it, online conversation often becomes its “own” thing. I don’t know that anyone who uses words online regularly is exactly the same person online as offline; there are probably deeply rooted psychological and epistemological reasons why the technology itself splits personalities. But I do know that some people’s online/offline personas are more different than others, and similarly, there are topics of theology, or ethics, life issues, etc., that seem to yield a lot of this kind of digital double-takes.

What I mean is that there are certain issues, certain “conversations” that go a lot differently in the world of digital publishing, social media, blogging, etc, than they do while you’re, say, talking to people in small group or at work or over coffee. It’s as if the ecosystem of online writing rewards a particular way of talking about things that people pick up on, yet often don’t fully (or at all) translate into personal terms. If you ask a question on Twitter or in a column, you’ll get one answer. If you ask in your living room, you’ll get a different answer.. from the same people!

Again, this is all personal observation. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting what’s going on here. I’m not throwing down a #take about any particular person and/or group. It’s just something I’ve noticed. Let me offer a couple examples:

Example #1: Singleness

If your primary exposure to the thoughts of single-but-wanting-marriage 20 and 30somethings is online magazines, blogs, podcasts, and social media posts, you probably think that most single people in evangelical churches today really want married people to stop trying to pair them up; to not see them as “single” people, i.e., people with a “need” that should be met; and to give them more responsibility and ministry opportunities. In other words, the evangelical online perspective is, “Stop looking at my singleness, and start thinking of me and acting toward me like I don’t have a personal gap that needs to be filled.”

What I’ve noticed though is that almost all of the single 20 and 30somethings that I’ve talked to in the past few years, the same time frame in which I’ve seen the above narrative really catch fire in magazines and blogs, are quite upfront about their desire to be married. In community groups they talk about the struggle of seeing friends married off through the years. They admit loneliness and seem to perk up when someone says, “Hey I might know somebody.” They’re active in ministry. They do resist the bias against single people that can creep into evangelical churches, but they don’t resent the leadership of the church being overwhelmingly married folks. That’s what they want for themselves. It’s not that they’re deficient people, it’s that they have a desire that is unmet; they’re OK with people they trust and love knowing this, and praying and encouraging accordingly.

Example #2: Masculinity

If you make the mistake of Googling the phrase “biblical masculinity,” there’s no telling when your loved ones will discover your corpse, with forehead gashed through blunt force trauma of hitting yourself with your computer monitor. Consider two common, competing #takes in the Christian online world about masculinity. The first take is the “alpha male” crowd, the guys who say you’re not a real man if you don’t spit craft beer at the libs. They’re all about how “Big Eva” has emasculated Christian men. There’s a weird compulsion in this crowd to make everything about being a man, as if one could forget he’s a man and in that moment would cease to be one. The second take is the sophisticated, urbane, literary take on masculinity, which is that it basically doesn’t exist and that any guy who is concerned about becoming a Christian man is furthering the patriarchy and is probably just cosplaying John Wayne on his way to vote for Trump.

These two groups dominate online conversation about manhood. Yet are they actually representative of the guys who come to your church on Sunday morning? Of course not. And what you find out is that the lives and marriages and parenting of some of the guys who have the “edgiest” things to say about masculinity online are not all that edgy. The wife of the dude who chirps about the emasculation of evangelicalism from his blog works two jobs so that he can do his Masters degree full-time. The “masculinity is a construct of the patriarchy” guy soon acknowledges that he needs more resources about parenting boys. I’ve seen first-hand this disconnect between what tribes people sort themselves into and the actual lives they lead. Don’t hear me saying that gender roles are an unimportant issue. What I am saying is that the real-life dynamics of love, marriage, sex, parenting, and friendship are not very Tweetable.

Online Identity

The above are examples of the theological backchannel. They are genres of evangelical writing where the most prominent kinds of perspectives seem weirdly at odds with what you see offline. In DeBoer’s original piece, he uses the political/journalistic backchannel mainly as evidence that people are scared of sharing what they truly believe, since their membership in certain in-groups (which may be a lucrative membership career-wise) depends on their having the right opinions. I’ve seen a similar thing at work in the theological backchannel, particularly with how often and gleefully the genetic fallacy is deployed to show why person in tribe X is wrong about issue Y, because people in tribe X are always wrong. In the world of ideas the universe is partitioned neatly between people who are right and people who are wrong, and often the writing that follows simply seeks to establish more “turf” for all the players.

But there is an identity aspect to it as well. I think we’re just now beginning to realize that for the emerging adult generation, the internet is not simply an activity, it’s a mode of existence. That’s why we’re getting so exhausted by it. There’s no hobby that drains you like online life because online life isn’t a hobby, it’s an ecosystem in which everyone is actively trying to construct a new habitus. We’re not the same people offline that we are online. That’s the whole reason we’re online in the first place. The question then is not “Why is there a backchannel?” The question is, as time and connectivity and epistemology continue to transform, which one is actually the backchannel—online or off?