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?

Second Amendments and First Commandments

When it comes to gun control issues, one thing that’s occurred to me is how I wish conservatives had the same kind of relationship with the Second Amendment as they do with the First.

Here’s what I mean. With regard to pornography, conservative Christians are unafraid to challenge the supremacy of “free speech.” Court opinion over the last half-century has decisively stood with the porn industry, declaring that most attempts to curtail or check it fall under the condemnation of the First Amendment. What’s fascinating to me is that social conservatives have not responded to this thinking by arguing that there is no conflict between free speech and laws against porn. On the contrary, they’ve typically argued that  “free speech” in the First Amendment is not an absolute, self-interpreting idea, and that there is an ontological and ethical dissimilarity between porn and the speech that the Constitution envisions.

In other words, in the debate over pornography and public well-being, social conservatives have responded to procedural arguments (about the First Amendment) with moral arguments that reframe, in response to a cultural crisis, our basic assumptions.

Now, I don’t have any pet policy on guns. I didn’t grow up around them and I didn’t grow up hostile to them either. Gun control is one of the issues on which I am genuinely indecisive. What I’m noticing nowadays is how the conservative relationship to the First Amendment is unlike its relationship to the Second Amendment.

When it comes to bearing arms, many conservatives are both unflaggingly literal and relentlessly pragmatic. “Bearing arms” is given a maximally broad meaning, and on the other side, this broad meaning creates a hopelessly deep and complex situation for anybody who’d want to, say, regulate ownership of certain kinds of weapons. This is the opposite of what social conservatives do in the porn debate. When talking about smut and the First Amendment, conservatives bring a moral evaluation of the problem into the debate and insist that our understanding of the Framers’ intent be modified by this evaluation. When talking about the Second Amendment, conservatives simply say that the words themselves are impenetrable.

I think this double standard is unfortunate on a couple fronts. First, progressives are understandably cynical when conservatives appeal to moral counterarguments to jurisprudence on certain issues (porn, pro-life, etc), yet condemn this approach on guns. Second, conservatives have found themselves without a robust moral political vision of weapons and self-defense, which means that the debate over guns has fallen almost entirely among predetermined tribal camps (thus, social conservatives are at the mercy of the Republican Party, which, let’s just say, struggles to represent the conservative worldview).

Worst of all, this mentality has left conservative Christians without a prophetic moral vision on guns, which means that many evangelicals have simply mined the libertarian camp for talking points, not realizing the fundamentally sub-Christian commitments that often attend them. The recent interest in some quadrants of progressive evangelicalism in Christian pacifism serves, among other things, as a rebuke to the unfortunate alliance between evangelicalism and the GOP platform. If Christian witness can revolutionize our vision for what “free speech” means, it ought to at least have a chance to do the same for our firearms.

The consensus in much evangelicalism around Second Amendment absolutism is not a point of doctrinal orthodoxy. You will search in vain for a biblical text or historic tradition that teaches that Christians have a providential right to own guns (just as you won’t find a providential right to a free press or democratic elections). This of course doesn’t solve the issue, but it should certainly temper the dogmatism with which quite a few American evangelicals seem to think about it. If the thought of being unable to own assault rifles creates more anxiety in a Christian imagination than, say, the thought of a white supremacist terrorizing a black church during a midweek Bible study, we would do well to ask what is most shaping that imagination. Love can be misdirected.

A Complementarian Crisis

The Biblical vision of gender offers real joy and flourishing. The question is, do we?

A couple years ago Ray Ortlund memorably described the typical lifespan of an American evangelical church as “Movement, monument, then mausoleum.” The early years are the movement, as enthusiasm and purposefulness characterize the church’s charter members and leaders. If the movement finds success, over time the church tends to lose its missional passion and instead devotes most of its energy to preserving itself against the sands of time. The result is an insular, nostalgic culture that can be stirring when excitement is highest but spends most of the time curved in on its own identity. If this habit goes unbroken long enough, eventually the church simply runs out of people who remember “the good old days” and has nothing and no one to replace them with.

Many evangelicals, including yours truly, can personally attest to how true to life this narrative is. You don’t have to go far in America to find a large, beautiful, ornate, empty church. Ironically, though many churches have abandoned the old practice of keeping a cemetery on their grounds, a sobering number of congregations have become their own kind of cemetery, where evangelism and community lie interred. While it might be oversimplified, the movement-monument-mausoleum narrative is certainly true of enough.

That’s at least one reason why many evangelical complementarians, like me, are a bit uneasy nowadays. What’s true of the institutions and movements explicitly commissioned by Jesus (churches) is doubly true of the institutions and movements that are mostly just extra, and in some cases the downward slopes are steeper outside congregational walls. As someone who is solidly convinced that the Bible teaches complementary gender theology over and against both secular feminism and Christian egalitarianism, the complementarian spectacle has not been pleasant of late.

Let me describe the spectacle as I see it.

First, evangelical complementarianism, based on the messaging and activity of its most important institutions and advocates, seems to currently lack a compelling identity. The debate over the Trinity a few years back was an impressive exchange of massively important theological ideas between gifted and faithful scholars, but it’s not at all clear to me what, exactly, that dialogue accomplished. There seems (at least to me, an interested layperson) to be no better consensus on issues such as the eternal functional subordination of the Son (EFS) now than there was in the smoke.

Such a lack of closure on what appears to be the most significant theological moment for complementarianism in the last ten years exemplifies what feels like a broad uncertainty over what evangelical complementarianism is: a position (on which issues?), a movement (including which people?), a dialogue (between whom?), a response (to what?), etc.  Hence, the feeling of some that current complementarianism, lacking a clear center of gravity, has turned its polemic energy on itself.

That is the second concerning trend. The uncertainty lingering after the trinity debate has led (at least partly) to a widening gap within complementarianism, between the “thin” and the “thick.” Again, the terms are maddeningly unclear. Thin complementarians appear to be mostly responding to arguments from divine ordering and natural law that bind consciences on questions like what jobs and roles women can have in the public square. The thick comps seem to view at least openness to such gendered ordering of the public square as integral to an authentically biblical theology of male and female.

It’s important to acknowledge the significance of this intramural rift for complementarianism writ large. The complementarianism of the Danvers days was explicitly presented as a response to evangelical feminism, e.g., the ordination of women in Christian churches and the downplaying of male-female distinctions in culture and politics. Most self-described “thin” complementarians accept male-only eldership and reject both same-sex marriage and transgender ideology (by contrast, a significant percentage of self-identified egalitarians seem to be LGBT and transgender affirming). Thus, the current rift between thin and thick complementarianism is not a rift over the core content of classic complementarianism as it has been most often articulated, but a rift borne of a newer, more active search to chart the true implications of this theology. No matter whether you identify as thick or thin, the biggest point here is where complementarian energies are being expended, and divided—not so much over the ordering of the home and church, but in the potential implications for public theology outside.

It’s certainly true that the various disputes between the thin and thick camps matter, and should not be dismissed or avoided. If nothing else, pastors and church leaders should define themselves as clearly as possible to avoid potentially catastrophic illusions of unity on issues that have real implications for the congregation. Granted that, I think it’s fair to wonder if the thin vs thick faceoff is doomed by the law of diminishing return. It’s hard to imagine a robust, coherent complementarianism with lots of different splinter cells, servicing competing evangelical sub-tribes that share digital space at places like TGC but work behind the scenes to undermine one another. Perhaps thin vs thick is not such a harbinger. Perhaps it’s a watershed moment that will yield a liberating amount of theological clarity and solidarity. Perhaps not, too.

If certain dynamics continue unchanged, there’s reason to worry about the above scenario coming true. In fact, it’s already started to happen. This is the third concerning trend: a surplus of “lumping,” a frustrating infatuation with ephemeral social media trends, and growing suspicion that what’s being talked about isn’t what’s really being talked about.

One vivid example took place just last week at the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention. After giving the ERLC’s annual report, president Russell Moore took questions from the floor. One of the questions was a pitifully obvious attempt at a gotcha: The delegate quoted an old piece by Dr. Moore that vigorously asserted a complementarian position on churches that allow preaching by women. “Do you still believe this,” the delegate asked, and only some of the members present would have been able to hear the dog-whistle for a condemnation of Beth Moore.

Of course, one question from one delegate at the Southern Baptist Convention does not a narrative make. Still, the Beth Moore “moment” that swept through large portions of influential complementarian social media was a disconcerting episode—not because a woman’s preaching on Mother’s Day is a good idea complementarians should just get over, but because the stakes of public complementarian theology are much bigger than subtweets and a Hallmark holiday.

These disconcerting trends have one possible, unifying explanation. It could be that the evangelical complementarian vision has pivoted from its focused, theologically hefty “movement” phase, and is currently more concerned with recreating its old polemical energy. In this hypothesis, what the “monument” phase looks like for complementarians is an attempt to re-win a war already won, regardless that evangelical feminism has largely collapsed fully into the mainline denominations and has, for the most part, become one thread in a thoroughly non-evangelical garment. Without the same clearly delineated purpose and target, a restless complementarianism turns on itself and becomes a monument to its former role and rhetoric.

Assuming this is at least partly true, what now? I go back to Ortlund’s original blog post, because the path he offers churches to renewal and rejuvenation rings true in more ways than one:

The responsibility of a church’s leaders is to discern when their movement is starting to level off as a monument. It is at this crucial point that they must face themselves honestly and discover why they have lost their edge, go into repentance and return to the costly commitments that made them great to begin with. They may need to deconstruct much of what they have become, which is painful and embarrassing. But if the leaders will have the humility, clarity, and courage to do this, their church will go into renewal and re-launch as a movement once more. Jesus will become real again, people will be helped again, and those bold, humble leaders will never regret the price they paid.

Unpacking this rich paragraph, I count several steps forward for a renewed complementarian vision:

1) Complementarians don’t need to agree about all the reasons in order to acknowledge that the movement needs help and revitalization. From #MeToo to the Trinity to trolls, complementarian culture needs to honestly assess its current health.

2) Complementarians need to repent of the role that any spiritual pride or anger may have played in the decay of the movement, especially that which may have caused us to deflect faithful criticism and compromise with un-Christian means to accomplish (in our view) Christian ends.

3) Complementarians should enter a season of self-examination, consciously pressing pause on polemics in order to define, clearly, what we believe Jesus is calling us to be and do. There needs to be a “return to fundamentals” in theology, resisting temptations to answer challenges with slippery slope angst and credential-checking and instead going ad fontes, to the heart of the full biblical narrative on gender and God’s image.

4) Complementarians should pray urgently that the Holy Spirit would be discernible to outsiders, including all His fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These aren’t the ingredients to heavy blog traffic or snazzy headlines, but they are the only fruits that matter to the Judge of all the earth.

I don’t believe complementarianism is a generational fad. Rather, I think it is the best, most serious attempt thus yet to make sense of the Bible’s radically counter-cultural ideas about maleness and femaleness. Biblical complementarity, like biblical sexuality, offers deep joy and real flourishing. The challenge, as always, is to resist making a theology that isn’t about us, really about us, and in so doing stand squarely between the world and the joy and flourishing offered by our risen Savior. Of course, Christ doesn’t let even mausoleums get in the way of his mission. The question is, will we?

The Empathy Trap

Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle.

A few days ago my friend and brilliant writer Joe Rigney published a piece at Desiring God titled “The Enticing Sin of Empathy.” Provocative? Yes, and to be honest, my first response when I saw the title was, “Uh, no.” I balked at the suggestion that what we should be talking about in an age of intense polarization, shame storms, and racial and ideological violence is the sin of empathy. Obviously this was a case of someone trying too hard, no?

But as I read the satirical demonic letter  (in the spirit of The Screwtape Letters), the scales began to fall. Here’s how Rigney’s Screwtape describes the difference between empathy and compassion:

Think of it this way: the Enemy’s virtue of compassion attempts to suffer with the hurting while maintaining an allegiance to the Enemy. In fact, it suffers with the hurting precisely because of this allegiance. In doing so, the Christians are to follow the example of their pathetic and repulsive Master. Just as the Enemy joined the humans in their misery in that detestable act of incarnation, so also his followers are to join those who are hurting in their misery.

However, just as the Enemy became like them in every way but sin, so also his followers are not permitted to sin in their attempts to comfort the afflicted. Thus, his compassion always reserves the right not to blaspheme. It seeks the sufferer’s good and subordinates itself to the Enemy’s abominable standard of Truth.

Our alternative, empathy, shifts the focus from the sufferer’s good to the sufferer’s feelings, making them the measure of whether a person is truly “loved.” We teach the humans that unless they subordinate their feelings entirely to the misery, pain, sorrow, and even sin and unbelief of the afflicted, they are not loving them.

In other words, compassion multiplies sufferers, but empathy consumes all fellowship into the feelings of one. In the economy of empathy there is no currency except the sufferer’s own interpretation of their suffering; any other alm offered up is illegitimate. Compassion grabs hold (in one of Rigney’s metaphors) of sinking sufferers while keeping a firm grasp on that which is immovable, so that the sinking sufferer can be pulled up onto something. Empathy dives headlong in the quicksand. The point is not finding life after suffering. There is no point, except the experience of the moment. What we’re talking about is simply the abdication of pursuing the right and true in deference to feelings and experiences.

Now, even typing that previous sentence feels strange. It feels strange because for a while now the idea that feelings and experiences do not dictate what we should believe or do is an idea that has been lumped—lumped in with bombastic right-wing pundits (“Facts don’t care about your feelings”), scowling John Wayne boomers, and careless theologians. This is one of the essential difficulties of thinking in a polarized, culture war age: It’s impossible to believe anything that isn’t somehow trademarked by an obnoxious tribe.

But the difficulty of thinking is not an excuse for failing to try, and if we’re willing to listen, I think Joe is making a crucially important point about the empathy trap and the power it wields over many.

This empathy trap was on display in evangelical social media this week. On Sunday, president Donald Trump appeared onstage at McLean Bible Church, and pastor David Platt prayed with and for him. Joe Carter has a helpful summary of the background of the event, as well as a full transcript of Platt’s prayer. Nearly everyone seems to agree that Platt’s prayer was excellent. It was steadfastly non-partisan and unequivocal about the gospel. But did Platt make a serious error of judgment in allowing Trump to come onstage, in praying for him, and (perhaps most of all) in not forcefully shaming and rebuking him for his politics?  Since the moment resulted in some not-negative PR for Trump, and since Platt did not use the opportunity to challenge the president, a very vocal, very passionate group has reasoned that this obviously caused trauma and offense to many members of Platt’s church (and others).

It is, of course, entirely coherent to hold that a pastor must never allow a politician to be onstage at church. I’m actually sympathetic to that view and imagine that, all variables being equal, such a policy would probably solve a lot of problems at once. But nobody appears to be arguing from absolute principle that Platt was wrong to pray with Trump onstage. Instead, because it was Trump, it was wrong. The argument expressed so far has to do with the felt offense of members of Platt’s church at watching their pastor pray for a president they abhor.

The Platt drama reveals two of the biggest dangers of unchecked empathy. First, empathy is by definition selective (empathize with NeverTrump, or his supporters in the church?); thus it’s uniquely vulnerable to being held captive by passing fads, trends, and mobs. Much of the fiercest criticism of Platt seems to be deeply self-congratulatory, reverberating with Retweets and Likes in echo chambers that consistently take the ungenerous interpretation of a white evangelical pastor’s stage time with Donald Trump. Nary a thought is offered for the complexities of being a pastor of a politically diverse congregation, and the wisdom in refraining from partisan language and simply pointing the church and the president to the gospel.

Second, this kind of empathetic absolutism runs serious risk of becoming a ruthlessly utilitarian way of doing life and theology. Matthew Vines built an entire case for Christian LGBT affirmation on the basis of the hurt and alienation of gay Christians from traditional churches. “Bad trees bear bad fruit,” he wrote, an analogy that fails logically but succeeds emotionally. It’s not hard to see how a one-note emphasis on the feelings of others can become a mechanism for controlling revelation, particularly in the hyper-democratic and hyper-individualistic superstructure of online life.

The alternative, as Joe writes, is compassion. There should be much compassion for those who fall into the empathy trap, since, where compassion is lacking, unchecked empathy often rushes to fill the void. There is a true dearth of compassion in both secular and Christian culture—tribalism when there should be honesty, shaming when there should be help, and politics when there should be prayer. The inability to even mention these dynamics without seeing conservative backs stiffen is why the empathy trap is hard to resist. Yet resist it we should, in the name of wisdom and eternity. Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle, to hold a hand on one end and keep a grip on solid ground with the other.

The best I can tell, David Platt was put into a demanding position and asked to make a potentially explosive decision. In the end, he shared the stage with a seriously morally problematic leader and did nothing else but echo the exhortations of the Caesar-submissive Paul. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a political leader and feeling offense at his views or conduct, but there’s everything wrong with imputing that offense to the gospel itself and demanding that churches only obey 1 Timothy 2:2 through gritted teeth and scorn. Bible-trumping partisanship crouches at both GOP and Democratic doors, and it’s not less of a tragedy for it to master one tribe over another.

We must still master it. To that end, I don’t think we could do much better than to pray alongside David Platt: “Please, O God, help us to look to you, help us to trust in your Word, help us to seek your wisdom, and live in ways that reflect your love and your grace, your righteousness and your justice.”

Evangelicals and the (Complex) Persecution Complex

Conversations about American Christians and religious liberty are dysfunctional to the core.

Bonnie Kristian surely writes for almost all in the journalist class when she ridicules Mike Pence’s comments about Christians and religious freedom. “This is the evangelical persecution complex in action,” she writes, and “suggests an embarrassing ignorance of history and the teachings of Christ alike, and to those outside the church it unquestionably reads more as whining than witness.” I’m not sure whether by “those outside the church” Kristian means everyone who isn’t an evangelical Christian, or everyone who is sympathetic to progressive politics whenever they collide with Christian conviction. If she means the second, she’s definitely right. If she means the first, she might be surprised at the religious non-Christians who also feel threatened.

Anyway, Kristian’s argument is a familiar one. She says that 1) Christians have historically been persecuted (and are currently persecuted around the world), so Pence’s implicit nostalgia is misleading; 2) the gospel promises opposition to genuine faith, so Pence’s call to political culture war is at odds with Jesus’ teachings; and 3) Christians actually enjoy power and privilege in the United Sates, so Pence is simply lying in suggesting to young believers they are being actively discriminated against. She concludes, “For Christians here in the United States, this sort of rhetoric has a “boy who cried wolf” effect where religious liberty issues are concerned.”

With regard to Pence’s comments, I think Kristian is understandably cynical, but her argument has problems. First, from the manuscript, it looks to me as if Pence was careful to avoid saying that American Christians are persecuted in the same sense that Christians across the globe are. Rather, he said that while the church global is often persecuted, American evangelicals face intolerance and social pressure to capitulate—something that feels self-evidently true in the post-Obergefell era. Second, she seems to imply that political influence and economic privilege rule out any kind of meaningful prejudice. But how does that square with her reminder that Christ promised that his followers would regularly experience enmity? If any political capital rules out any form of persecution, is the conclusion that Barronnelle Stutzman and Jack Phillips must not be genuine believers?

The problem, though, is not really Kristian’s argument, nor Pence’s. The problem is that the entire conversation about religious persecution is dysfunctional to the core.  If there’s a better contemporary example of the genetic fallacy and the age of lumping than the issue of religious liberty, I can’t think of it. It’s absolutely soaked in out-grouping and gainsaying those whom your tribe dislikes, no matter what they’re saying.

My suspicion is that there are many fair-minded people who know that Christian universities are facing authentic forms of political pressure, but can’t bring themselves to endorse this idea publicly because of how it would lump them in with the GOP or religious right. It’s true that American Christians are often quick to find conspiracy when really only the market and a rapidly diversifying culture exist. But it’s also true that evangelical educators and business owners have been in court quite a bit lately, and that even the “victories” appear to leave the door open to a radical new understanding of what is and isn’t a permissible exercise of religion in the public square. The issue isn’t that evangelical political persecution never happens, the issue is that evangelicals and everyone to the left of them fundamentally disagree about whether it’s “persecution” or “the price of citizenship.” If you think that same-sex marriage and transgenderism are fundamental human rights, and that anyone doing any business in public should be required to recognize and accommodate those rights, then by definition you are going to see through 90% of religious liberty cases as simply whining.

As in a lot of things, the question “does group X experience Y” is really proxy question for, “What is group X and what should their experience be like?” This is the same way that debates about racial injustice in policing or politics get stuck. That there is no systemic injustice against ethnic minorities can never be disproved if it comes from the prior belief that systemic injustice is impossible because we’re all Americans. Likewise, what’s underneath a lot of the ridicule of the “evangelical persecution complex” is a steadfast belief that certain traditional elements of Christian theology are illegitimate in a civil culture. Isn’t it impossible to persecute persecution, to be intolerant toward intolerance? Stuck in between all this are, again, fair-minded folks who sense something is off when nuns are sued over contraception or adoption agencies are shut down, but refuse to be mapped onto Twitter alongside Donald Trump or Pat Robertson.

Worst of all, “Are evangelicals persecuted” is often asked completely devoid of geographic or socioeconomic context. Without qualifiers, the question really reads, “Are the evangelicals you see on TV and read about in magazines persecuted by people like you?” This fails utterly to take into account how pocketed American life has become, how diverse yet intensely concentrated.  What it means to be a traditionalist Christian in Marietta, Georgia means something very different than what it means to be one in San Francisco. For all our obsession over federal politics and national headlines, it’s worth remembering that people don’t risk their jobs or their relationship with their neighbors on a national level, but a local one. And it’s often true that small things punch deep holes in grand narratives.

All this is why I don’t use the phrase “persecution complex” to describe evangelicals. To me the phrase comes more from (warranted) frustration with evangelical political engagement than a fair consideration of the facts. And I don’t think it helps those outside the Christian tribe who may be experiencing prejudice and threats to constantly talk religious liberty concerns down.

But I also think it’s fair to also be skeptical of commencement addresses that sound like pre-battle hype speeches. Bonnie Kristian is right to suggest that a steady diet of this rhetoric undermines thankfulness and orients hearts toward victimhood and resentment rather than mission.  After all, the reason so many want so badly an answer to the question “Are evangelicals persecuted” is so they can know how to treat them or how to demand to be treated. Ours is a society in which far too much of our experience depends on whether we are sorted in a pitiable class. I can only take you seriously and care about you if you’re being run down by the outgroup. Forget neighborliness. Advocacy is where it’s at.

The Besetting Sin of Christian Worldview Education

Why do many evangelicals fail to recognize the genetic fallacy?

The besetting sin of Christian worldview education is the genetic fallacy, defined as an irrational error made by appealing to something’s origin (or “temporal order”) to explain away its truth-claims (or “logical order”). Here’s an example of how someone using the genetic fallacy (GF) might respond to various arguments:

A: “Politics is downstream from culture.”

GF: “Andrew Breitbart said that, and he was a right-wing troll, so you’re obviously wrong.”

B: “The unanimous testimony of Scripture is that homosexual acts are sinful.”

GF: “That’s exactly what Westboro Baptist Church says. Do we really want to be like them?”

C: “How well or poorly policies and systems treat minorities matters to God.”

GF: “Progressive Democrats talk about systemic injustice all the time. This is just code for abortion/socialism.”

Notice that in each example of the genetic fallacy, the retort is factually true. Andrew Breitbart DID say that politics was downstream from culture, and he DID popularize a belligerent style of journalism. Westboro Baptist Church DOES preach against homosexuality, and they ARE a horribly cruel cult. Progressives DO talk a lot about systemic injustice, and they often DO mean abortion and socialism as part of the solution. The retorts are true, or at least believable.

So if the retorts are true, why are these answers fallacious? Because they do not answer the actual question. Statements A, B, C make independent  claims that stand alone. By invoking a suspect source and then critiquing it, the responses are actually responding to a claim—about the worthiness of the source—that’s not being made. In other words, the retorts don’t actually tell us anything about the validity of the claim, only the validity of people who make similar claims. But since truthful statements and human credibility are not the same thing, the retorts miss the argument entirely. It would be little different, logically, if you told someone you believe it would rain later and her response was, “I don’t think so, because you need to clean your car. ” Ridiculous, right?

And yet the genetic fallacy is, in my experience, one of the logical errors least likely to be recognized in conversation. Each of the examples above are actual statements and retorts I have seen in prestigious magazines or from well-educated speakers. Evangelicals rarely rise above contemporary culture on this, too. This week Joe Carter was accused by some readers of this TGC column of smuggling in language from secular, disreputable sources. Without even dipping a toe in the debate over whether Joe’s piece makes a valid argument (I think it does, for the record), shouldn’t there be a little bit more incredulity that some professionally trained theologians sincerely believe “This term was coined by a Marxist” is an actual counter-argument?

My working theory is that much Christian worldview pedagogy, with its one-note emphasis on coherent systematization of religion, has habituated a lot of us to care more about identifying the ideological “root” of a claim than the claim itself. If you believe that the ultimate marker of Christian belief is how it contrasts in every aspect to non-Christian systems, then it makes sense to evaluate truth claims by whether they originate from the right system or not. If they don’t—in particular, if they’re a widely held belief among non-Christians—then those claims are de facto inconsistent with Christianity, because they fail the ideological paternity test.

So in a conversation about, say, conservatism and white nationalism, an evangelical who thinks strictly in terms of worldview systems comes into the conversation with much different goals than someone who doesn’t think like that. The worldview-shaped evangelical is constantly pulled in the direction of Sort, Contrast, Dismiss: Sort truth claims (“White nationalism influences some parts of conservative politics”) into appropriate “Teams” based on where this claim is most likely to come from. Here, the answer is obvious: Secular liberals and progressives. Having sorted, the worldview-shaped evangelical can now Contrast, but here’s a twist: He doesn’t have to contrast the claim itself, he only has to contrast the team into which he has sorted the claim, against the “team” he identifies with. So he contrasts secular progressivism with conservative Christianity…and now it’s all over but the yelling. He can safely Dismiss the claim that “white nationalism influences some parts of conservative politics” on the basis that this statement embodies the antithesis of his religious worldview—all without actually examining the factual basis of the claim.

The only way to break this cycle would be to convince our worldview-shaped friend that a secular progressive can be wrong about Christianity and abortion but right about white nationalism. But it’s likely that this just isn’t how he was educated. To grant that a secular progressive could be right is to open the door, to teeter on the slippery slope, to the claim that the progressive is right about everything: God, the unborn, religious liberty, etc. To grant that a secular progressive might be right is to grant a measure of legitimacy to his intellectual system. If the underlying presupposition of the worldview-shaped evangelical is that only one truth system can have any legitimacy, then this is unthinkable.

It’s unthinkable partly because it’s difficult to hold such a notion in one’s head. But it’s also difficult because, in a culture war society, the capacity of our beliefs to generate enemies and weapons against those enemies is actually a measure we use of truthfulness. The more enemies you have, the more oppressed you are, and the more oppressed you are, the more there must be a reason for that oppression. And everyone thinks the reason is that they’re right.

Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square

In our era, what’s truly Christian or conservative is not always easy to discern.

A few years ago, Bill Maher appeared on the (now shuttered) Charlie Rose Show. Maher is one of the smugger, less sufferable “New atheist” types, and has more or less made a lucrative career out of representing conservatives and religious people, especially Christians, as idiots at best and theocrats at worst. So it was a bit surprising to see a clip from his interview with Charlie Rose getting passed around with enthusiasm amongst many conservative (and Christian) politicos. Continue reading “Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square”