Would You Leave Your Church Over Politics?

Question: Would you, Christian, ever be so disappointed in the political views of your pastor or fellow church members, that you found yourself unable to even bear going to church anymore?

To be totally honest, before today, I would have dismissed this theoretical as too ridiculous for serious contemplation. It seems to me self-evident that the kind of people most likely to regularly attend church are not the same kind of people who would just decide to stop going over an election. That feels intuitive to me. I don’t believe I’ve ever met a person who admitted to abandoning their church over red vs blue.

I did however see this Twitter comment today.

Now of course, the problem with writing in response to posts on social media (and the reason I usually don’t do it and tend to look down at the practice) is that Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et al, exist in uniquely strong cultural vacuums. I’m sure the author of this tweet is telling the truth about hearing from all those people who’ve quit church since Donald Trump was elected. But I’m also sure that the people she has heard from do not represent any kind of serious movement or trend. When something written about a handful of people gets a lot of shares on social media, it’s easy to mistake something that merely reverberated in your particular slice of Twitter for something with actual consequence and meaning outside the internet.

Here’s the thing though: I do worry that the notion of leaving your church over political disagreements is one that can sell easier right now than it could have 20 years ago. In fact, if you’re paying attention to what’s going on inside college campuses, for example, finding out that there are some Christians who can’t bear to attend church because of who the President is shouldn’t stun you. It bears the stamp of the hyper-polarized, relationally recalcitrant age we live in.

Not only that, but it also seems to comport with a trendy spirit toward the institutional church, particular amongst younger religious Americans coming out of a conservative Christian childhood. It’s a spirit I’ve written about before in regards to the “purity culture” debates. The fastest way to get hip young evangelicals to heap praise on your blog is to write about how dangerous and worthy of suspicion the local church is, and to insist, contra the backward-minded (and probably Trump-voting) fogies, that if a church ever betrays your trust or makes you feel unhappy, you should leave–that church at least, and possibly faith itself (if doing so helps you get your groove back).

If you know this kind of culture within evangelicalism, then it’s hard to read about adults who can’t attend church post-election 2016 with much empathy. And that’s not a good thing, because there is something prophetic to be said about the way some church leaders and ministries turned their backs on their own theological identity in order to sell their politics. It’s good that people are grieved over that.

The problem though is that this response to sin and failure within the Body of Christ is simply trafficking in one kind of consumerism in response to another. Yes, many Christians do not have a consistently Christian politic. Yes, there are hypocrites in the church, some of them leaders. Yes, there is much to be ashamed. Yes, yes, yes. But none of this should be a surprise, and none of it is a caveat to the importance of the church. To stand over and above your brothers and sisters in the faith and say, “Your political sins disqualify you from my presence,” is to turn the entire gospel of the church on its head. It’s an intensely therapeutic and self-oriented relationship to the Christian faith.

It’s also giving politics way too much credit. The failure of many of us evangelicals has been to let politics subsume our Christian theology and identity. We’ve been “Christian conservatives” instead of conservative Christians. But that failure won’t be remedied by merely allowing our faith to be subsumed by a more progressive or more contemporary politic. Christians who cannot allow themselves to be in the same church as those who hold opposing political beliefs are, whether consciously or not, looking for a religious faith that is ultimately subservient to their politics.

One of the glorious benefits of Christian church membership is the opportunity it gives us to be shaped and formed, with others, by truths and practices that we did not create and that we cannot co-opt. And this process begins immediately in the local gathering of the church. When you find yourself worshiping and praying and confessing and hearing and singing alongside those who in any other walk of life would be an utter stranger to you, you are experiencing not just more inclusive relationships, you are experiencing spiritual realities that transcend even human relationships. When the bodies that share your pew but not your politics recite the same covenants or the same creeds as you, the idea that we are all the sum total of our own ideas explodes.

But all this is lost in a religious culture that understands church and spiritual disciplines as just more possibilities for self-actualization. The idea that a stodgy institution, filled with hypocrites and culturally illiterate patriarchs, actually deserves a self-crucifying kind of loyalty is not one that you’ll find in the pages of bestsellers. In the age of merciless autonomy, life can and should be blown up and traded-in for whatever works today. Eat, pray, love–what, to whom, and with whom you want! Spiritualized versions of this, even if accompanied with harrowing first person narratives of the horrors of old time religion, are no better in the end.

Evangelicalism could use better politics. But first, it needs members. It doesn’t matter how well we know the social justice implications of the kingdom if what we mean by the “kingdom” is merely the sum total of our individualistic lives. The church is imperfect, not despite me and you, but precisely because of me and you. Keep that in mind the next time you think of politics and feel tempted to skip Sunday.

Sitting Athwart History

Today I’m re-upping this post from May 2016. 

Timothy George’s profile of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and its senior pastor, Mark Dever, is a joy to read. It was a joy for me personally because my wife and I are members of a church in Louisville that owes much to Dever and Capitol Hill. My pastor, Greg Gilbert, studied under Dever, and Third Avenue Baptist bears much resemblance to the vision that Dever has cast in his “9 Marks” ministry.

I was raised in very traditional Southern Baptist churches. These churches, I am told, thrived during the middle of the last century. I have to rely on the testimony of others for that information, because by the time I was old enough to notice, many of the churches I saw—including the ones I attended—were losing members yearly, becoming more insular and less evangelistic, and were often more enthralled by their internal politics than by the doctrines of Christianity. I spent my teenage years in an evangelical culture that desperately wanted to regain relevance. Thus, much of the preaching, teaching, singing, and “discipleship” that I heard was crafted carefully in the image of the “seeker-friendly” movement, which sought to make the experience of church palatable to Gen Xers and millennials who demanded entertainment and variety.

I didn’t fully realize what was going on until I arrived at Third Avenue. Then it became ridiculously obvious. For the sake of those accustomed to the secular liturgies of American culture, evangelicalism had tried to make the local church recognizable; but instead, it had made it invisible. Intellectual and spiritual formation of members was being neutered by the efforts to make church fun.

George describes how Dever pulled Capitol Hill away from this trend:

…[Dever] began to preach sermons that lasted upwards of one hour. Next, the church excised from its rolls hundreds of inactive members—some so inactive that they had long been dead! The practice of church discipline was begun. Members were also required to subscribe to a confession of faith and to say “an oath”—this is how a secular journalist described the church covenant—at the monthly communion. Entertainment-based worship was replaced by congregational singing, including many long-forgotten classic hymns from the past.

This describes perfectly my experience at Third Avenue. These churches are counter-cultural, not only in the content of their gospel but in the character of their pedagogy. And yes, pedagogy is the right word, because for churches like Third Avenue and Capitol Hill, the worship culture of the church is designed not merely to amuse or entertain, but to teach. The teaching doesn’t just begin and end with the sermon. The whole mode of worship is one that demands—and trains—intellectual and emotional maturity. Times of silence invoke the kinds of reflection and meditation that a smartphone culture often finds impossible. Old hymns with archaic but theologically rich vocabulary remind singers of big truths that require old words, not just mantras that could be found in any young adult novel. At any given point in the service there is a sense that members aren’t just spectating or even just participating in an event, but that they are learning in both word and desire.

This is the personal formation that has been lost in the noise of much evangelical church culture. It’s a loss that may carry a higher price tag than we ever thought. Could it even be that our current political crisis—and a crisis it is—is due at least part to the fact that millions of self-identified “evangelicals” are in churches that keep their attention but don’t teach them much? I’m not even talking mainly about the failure of churches to explicate a Christian view of political engagement, though that is certainly part of the problem. I’m talking mainly about the millions of people who name themselves members of evangelical churches, and yet find that reality TV lewdness and Twitter demagoguing are “speaking their language.” Instead of trying to jockey over whether they are actually “evangelical,” it might be better to acknowledge the possibility that many churches have failed to teach their members a better language.

Imagine a member of a entertainment-oriented church. He attends once per week, faithfully but passively. He absorbs many contemporary worship songs, some of which seem inspired by the Psalms but many of which seem inspired by Hallmark. Though he doesn’t consciously register it, the language and ritual he hears in church overlaps with that of commercialism. Everything about the church service is “accessible” to him as an average, working class American Christian. Everything feels new, and interesting, and immediately useful (or would if he could remember it after lunch). The hour he spends on Sunday morning feels like time well spent, mainly because it wasn’t much time and because there’s little cognitive dissonance between life in the church and life in the world.

Can this kind of spiritual formation provide any ballast in the wake of economic hardship, cultural alienation or political anger? Not at all. For those who aren’t being actively formed to think deeper thoughts, the rhetorical power of talk radio and social media demagogues is too invigorating and too empowering. Much of our American political rhetoric is pure showmanship, training the audience to respond as quickly as possible, as emotively as possible, to the world around them. Outrage, mockery, and hysteria feel so real, and when a moral imagination has not been trained to want something more, there’s no defense against them. If the moral imaginations of evangelicals aren’t being formed in church, where will they be formed?

The local church’s mandate of discipleship is a mandate for maturity. If evangelicalism has failed in the voting booth, perhaps that is because it is failing in the pews. Perhaps evangelical church culture cannot be satisfied with “relevance.” Perhaps what it really needs is transcendence, to risk sounding out of date and out of place if it means thinking big thoughts about big questions. This isn’t a call for mere pulpit partisanship. It’s a call for the recovery of the Christian tradition that stood up to Roman emperors for the cause of religious freedom and the end of slave trades, but also one that built monasteries. It’s a call for the church to be more than accessible—to be formative, to meet people where they are in order to raise them up.

There is a God-appointed time for Christians to come together, with unity in diversity, and learn to look at the world the way God sees it. That time is the gathering of the local church. Before evangelicals can stand athwart history, we need to sit athwart it first.

4 Requests to Young Evangelical Writers

  1. Please don’t believe, or write as if you believe, that your personal experiences are a fully reliable path to understanding. Everyone who has life has experiences, and those experiences do shape us in meaningful ways. But here’s the problem: Different people have different experiences, and different experiences can yield wildly different, even contradictory, notions of reality. You may have been bullied and wounded by a fundamentalist church. That experience is valid and means something, but it doesn’t mean that every fundamentalist is waiting to hurt someone, nor does it mean that everyone who sounds to you like a fundamentalist is someone who would bully you given the chance. We can be honest about our experiences and how they form us, but making experience authoritative–especially when it empowers broad assumptions and animosity toward others–is deeply deceptive.
  2. Please make your theology more than language games. If you describe your faith as “welcoming,” “authentic,” and “open,” explain what those words mean using ideas and examples. Don’t merely use the words to gain leverage over those who disagree with you about Scripture or the church. This verbal violence happens to the word “legalistic” all the time. Legalism has a specific meaning which implicates certain specific attitudes and beliefs. It’s not a catch-all term to describe anyone who has a conscience issue about entertainment.
  3. Be willing to critique your “tribe.” This is not hard to do when your friends are doing it too. It’s only hard when you’re the one doing it and your friends/fellow writers are the ones at the receiving end. A lot of young evangelicals are more than willing to critique, harshly even, their parents’ tribe or their pastor’s tribe. This, unfortunately, is not necessarily the same as critiquing your tribe.
  4. Remember that “love hopes all things.” Write, think, and love as if the church is beautiful, because she is. Beware the temptation to demand that other Christians be good to you before you love them and hope the best for them. Don’t ridicule or shame the very thing for which your savior died merely for the sake of some clicks, follows, or a book deal. Honestly, “I Got Burned By the Church and Now I’m Out For Revenge” is the lamest, least-interesting genre of writing out there today. Be brave enough not merely to deconstruct but to say, “This, flaws and all, is valuable, and I love it, and you should too.”

Did Gandalf Rescue Evangelicals?

Yesterday afternoon I was watching the live stream of the 2016 ERLC National Conference. Specifically, I tuned into a panel that discussed how evangelicals could engage with art in a gospel-centered way. In the course of the conversation, one of the panelists, Alissa Wilkinson (a film critic that you should read), remarked that, in her view, evangelical attitude toward art has notably improved over the last 10 years.

I agree with that. Having grown up in conservative evangelical culture my entire life, I absolutely have noticed a change in how many pastors, theologians, and those in Christian circles have talked about film, literature, TV, etc. There just seems to be a greater interest right now in talking about art from a Christian perspective than there was when, say, I was in junior high, and buying the “kids versions” of the Left Behind books and the albums of rock bands that were openly marketed as “mainstream alternatives.”

But Wilkinson’s comment got me thinking: What changed? What happened with evangelicals roughly 10 years ago that set these trends in motion? Here’s a theory: Peter Jackson happened. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is, I believe, the most influential factor in the renewal of American evangelicalism’s interest in art.

The Fellowship of the Ring premiered in December of 2001. The timing of that release is important, because just a few weeks before FOTR, the first film version of the Harry Potter novels also premiered. Up to this point, Harry Potter was the most significant literary event in the world, and evangelicals had spent most of their time and energy debating whether it was even permissible to read/watch. There was precious little “engagement” with the biggest book of the century; it just fell, like so many other things did, into trenches of evangelical “Do or Don’t” war.

But when Fellowship debuted, evangelicals were flummoxed. Here was a PG-13 adaptation of a novel written by a traditional Catholic in the latter half of the 20th century. I had never heard of J.R.R. Tolkien when I saw the movie in December 2001, and neither had most of my family or friends. But enough Christians knew about the books to herald the coming of the movies as a significant moment for believers and Hollywood.

There was, of course, an irony here. Many of the influential evangelical publications that had urged believers to avoid the wizardry of Harry Potter took a starkly different approach to Gandalf. The dissonance was unmistakeable. World Magazine, which had studiously criticized the Potter books, preemptively advertised Fellowship as a “family-friendly blockbuster” that Christians should be interested in (and so too with the next two Lord of the Rings movies). Plugged In (Focus on the Family’s media review publication) threw red flags all over Hogwarts, but saw Tolkien’s “Christian themes at work” in Jackson’s films. The difference was, of course, that Tolkien spoke openly about his Catholic faith, while in the evangelical world, you could occupy your day reading chain emails with conspiracy theories about J.K. Rowling’s intentions. Unlike the Potter phenomenon, a lot of believers saw in the Lord of the Rings movies an opportunity to see their “values” on the screen.

The effects were immediate. Lord of the Rings was an enormous financial success, of course, fomenting new trends in cinema and a wave of religiously tinged “prestige pictures.” But more than that, the movies started something in evangelicals. Suddenly it seemed that Reformed Christians everywhere were putting fantasy books on their favorite lists. Shortly after the Lord of the Rings movies my own Bible college made the books required reading. Even Hogwarts started to fare better, with later installments of the film series getting positive reviews in many evangelical outposts. It wasn’t that evangelicals’ convictions had changed, necessarily; it was that Jackson’s movies had broken down barriers between faith and imagination that many American evangelicals didn’t even realize had gone up.

Just a theory, but this does seem to match my own experience as far as when I noticed a new evangelical engagement with popular art. It’s just not possible for me to imagine a round of Christian think pieces on something like Netflix’s “Stranger Things” 15 years ago. Now, it seems so inevitable that it’s actually good parody. Something had to happen for that to be the case.

In my view, Gandalf happened.

Pandering to Millennials

My friend and Mere Orthodoxy editor Jake Meador linked to this blog post on Twitter, and the following couple of paragraphs are too good to not share:

The other day I read another of those articles that irritate me. The ones about how the church is failing millenials (sic) by being terribly outdated, and how it needs to modify it’s message to appeal to the younger, hipper crowd…

Look, I am a millenial, albeit on the side of that demographic in danger of being too old to count as the current “it” age group. And I can tell you exactly how to get millenials in your pews. You tell them that their moms and dads were horribly wrong and misguided, and that they are actually much better informed and more correct than their parents. Just like they’ve always suspected. And then you explain that, actually, Christianity is exactly what all the cool people they want to like them say it should be. And they will come, because that is a brand that sells. Who doesn’t want their youthful arrogance stroked and the social cost of their faith removed?

This is incredibly important. The author isn’t lobbing grenades at millennials, by the way; he’s criticizing instead the people who’ve industrialized a superiority complex, the same one that attends every generation, in order to gain members. Millennials are not the only young adults in history to want to hear how much smarter they are than their parents. But they very well may be the first generation to actually be pandered to in this way by institutional Christianity.

It’s true when we’re talking about church, and it’s doubly true when we’re talking about Christian culture. How much blog content in the evangelical world falls under the category of, “Personal Narrative of How I Realized That My Parents/Church/Mentors Were Wrong About _______”? Of course, many of these stories are true and helpful. But quite a few of them read as if the entire point of having these kind of discoveries isn’t to find truth, but to relish the joy of finding out the old fogies were in error.

When I think about my generation of Christians, the biggest concern I have is not that we will wholesale abandon orthodoxy or the local church. Jesus will build his body and not even the gates of social media can overcome that. No, my biggest concern is that the we millennials will construct the idea that ours is a “chosen generation,” that the saints who came before us are obstacles to be hurdled and those who come us after will look pretty much like we do. My fear is that even in all the gospel-centered gospel-centeredness, the impulse within American evangelicalism to pander to the generation that currently defines cool will relapse us into a cultural captivity, one that may not be as obvious as fundamentalism but may be deeper and darker.

Here’s an idea. For every article you read this week on why the older generation of evangelicals was totally wrong about X, read 3 things written 100+ years ago. For every TED Talk you listen to, listen to 2 more sermons by a preacher who probably doesn’t own a smartphone. Preach to yourself that what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” must be avoided at all costs. Immerse yourself in the timeless and be moderate with the contemporary.

The Worst President Ever

A president with wrong ideas is not a good president. But a president with wrong motivations would be the worst president imaginable.

Too often we think of politicians and rulers as fundamentally different types of people than the rest of us. It’s an understandable misconception, given that our ruling class is overwhelmingly technocratic and elite. From trust funds to the Ivy League, the existential gap between taxpayers and the leaders they get to choose from seems infinite.

But powerful humans beings are still human beings. That means they experience the same temptations, doubts, frustrations, and ambitions that their electorate experiences. If you want to understand the most powerful, influential people in the world, the best way to start is to try to understand the people working in the cubicle across from you, or sitting in the pew behind you, or taking notes on the other side of the classroom.

Every adult understands intuitively the difference between the wrong kind of person and a person who is just wrong. We practice this intuition every day on spouses, coworkers, children, law enforcement, etc. How many parents have pled for understanding from exasperated teachers with the words, “They’re not a bad kid”? Or how many of us have tried to get out of the speeding ticket by insisting that we had no idea the change in zone limit, or the speedometer has been messing up? Nobody in the right mind says, “You have to understand, my child is just an especially wicked and stubborn kid,” or, “Honestly, officer, I love speeding and breaking the law. Can’t you empathize with my loves?” In the contexts that come to us every day, we practice the difference between the wrong motivation and the wrong application.

What bewilders me about this election is the amount of people I’m running into who willingly concede that their candidate of choice may be the wrong kind of person. There’s a maddening air of willing indifference when it comes to motivations and basic moral orientation. And these same people are likely thrashing another politician, on the other side of the aisle, for being “anti-American” or “unpatriotic” in their policies or worldview. It’s almost as if there’s a huge group of voters in my social sphere who think the wrong kind of president is better than a wrong president.

But surely this is asinine. It’s a delusion that can only be maintained by divorcing entirely a person from their actions. If a candidate who seeks office consistently demonstrates morally contemptible behavior, a self-seeking narcissism, dishonesty, cruelty and manipulation, how is it at all possible that his or her leadership will not reflect that? How is it possible to be the wrong kind of person but the right kind of leader?

Surely this is not the logic we would apply to even our babysitters. It’s one thing for a sitter to cluelessly give the children sugary sweets right before bedtime. That’s a mistake, but it’s a mistake that can be cured through correction. But it’s another thing entirely for a sitter to plop down on the sofa, immerse herself in her phone, and let the children do whatever they want so long as she does nothing she finds inconvenient. The first babysitter needs instruction and perhaps some common sense. The second babysitter needs a moral intervention.

Parents get this distinction. Why don’t voters? Why are so many people in my Facebook feed convinced that character is negotiable if we’re talking about getting the job done? Why are so many evangelicals farming out their convictions about integrity for the sake of keeping the score between Left and Right even? When did we convince ourselves that the wrong kind of person can be the right kind of president?

A president with bad beliefs is a dangerous thing. But a bad person is even worse than bad beliefs. If this is true on Monday morning in the office, or on Saturday night during date night, it’s so much more true in November.

Sitting Athwart History

Timothy George’s profile of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and its senior pastor, Mark Dever, is a joy to read. It was a joy for me personally because my wife and I are members of a church in Louisville that owes much to Dever and Capitol Hill. My pastor, Greg Gilbert, studied under Dever, and Third Avenue Baptist bears much resemblance to the vision that Dever has cast in his “9 Marks” ministry.

I was raised in very traditional Southern Baptist churches. These churches, I am told, thrived during the middle of the last century. I have to rely on the testimony of others for that information, because by the time I was old enough to notice, many of the churches I saw—including the ones I attended—were losing members yearly, becoming more insular and less evangelistic, and were often more enthralled by their internal politics than by the doctrines of Christianity. I spent my teenage years in an evangelical culture that desperately wanted to regain relevance. Thus, much of the preaching, teaching, singing, and “discipleship” that I heard was crafted carefully in the image of the “seeker-friendly” movement, which sought to make the experience of church palatable to Gen Xers and millennials who demanded entertainment and variety.

I didn’t fully realize what was going on until I arrived at Third Avenue. Then it became ridiculously obvious. For the sake of those accustomed to the secular liturgies of American culture, evangelicalism had tried to make the local church recognizable; but instead, it had made it invisible. Intellectual and spiritual formation of members was being neutered by the efforts to make church fun.

George describes how Dever pulled Capitol Hill away from this trend:

…[Dever] began to preach sermons that lasted upwards of one hour. Next, the church excised from its rolls hundreds of inactive members—some so inactive that they had long been dead! The practice of church discipline was begun. Members were also required to subscribe to a confession of faith and to say “an oath”—this is how a secular journalist described the church covenant—at the monthly communion. Entertainment-based worship was replaced by congregational singing, including many long-forgotten classic hymns from the past.

This describes perfectly my experience at Third Avenue. These churches are counter-cultural, not only in the content of their gospel but in the character of their pedagogy. And yes, pedagogy is the right word, because for churches like Third Avenue and Capitol Hill, the worship culture of the church is designed not merely to amuse or entertain, but to teach. The teaching doesn’t just begin and end with the sermon. The whole mode of worship is one that demands—and trains—intellectual and emotional maturity. Times of silence invoke the kinds of reflection and meditation that a smartphone culture often finds impossible. Old hymns with archaic but theologically rich vocabulary remind singers of big truths that require old words, not just mantras that could be found in any young adult novel. At any given point in the service there is a sense that members aren’t just spectating or even just participating in an event, but that they are learning in both word and desire.

This is the personal formation that has been lost in the noise of much evangelical church culture. It’s a loss that may carry a higher price tag than we ever thought. Could it even be that our current political crisis—and a crisis it is—is due at least part to the fact that millions of self-identified “evangelicals” are in churches that keep their attention but don’t teach them much? I’m not even talking mainly about the failure of churches to explicate a Christian view of political engagement, though that is certainly part of the problem. I’m talking mainly about the millions of people who name themselves members of evangelical churches, and yet find that reality TV lewdness and Twitter demagoguing are “speaking their language.” Instead of trying to jockey over whether they are actually “evangelical,” it might be better to acknowledge the possibility that many churches have failed to teach their members a better language.

Imagine a member of a entertainment-oriented church. He attends once per week, faithfully but passively. He absorbs many contemporary worship songs, some of which seem inspired by the Psalms but many of which seem inspired by Hallmark. Though he doesn’t consciously register it, the language and ritual he hears in church overlaps with that of commercialism. Everything about the church service is “accessible” to him as an average, working class American Christian. Everything feels new, and interesting, and immediately useful (or would if he could remember it after lunch). The hour he spends on Sunday morning feels like time well spent, mainly because it wasn’t much time and because there’s little cognitive dissonance between life in the church and life in the world.

Can this kind of spiritual formation provide any ballast in the wake of economic hardship, cultural alienation or political anger? Not at all. For those who aren’t being actively formed to think deeper thoughts, the rhetorical power of talk radio and social media demagogues is too invigorating and too empowering. Much of our American political rhetoric is pure showmanship, training the audience to respond as quickly as possible, as emotively as possible, to the world around them. Outrage, mockery, and hysteria feel so real, and when a moral imagination has not been trained to want something more, there’s no defense against them. If the moral imaginations of evangelicals aren’t being formed in church, where will they be formed?

The local church’s mandate of discipleship is a mandate for maturity. If evangelicalism has failed in the voting booth, perhaps that is because it is failing in the pews. Perhaps evangelical church culture cannot be satisfied with “relevance.” Perhaps what it really needs is transcendence, to risk sounding out of date and out of place if it means thinking big thoughts about big questions. This isn’t a call for civics lessons from the pulpit. It’s a call for the recovery of the Christian tradition that stood up to Roman emperors for the cause of religious freedom, and stood up to kings and presidents for the end of vicious slave trades. It’s a call for the church to be more than accessible—to be formative, to meet people where they are in order to raise them up.

There is a God-appointed time for Christians to come together, with unity in diversity, and learn to look at the world the way God sees it. That time is the gathering of the local church. Before evangelicals can stand athwart history, we need to sit athwart it first.

Evangelicals and Toxic Masculinity

One of the worst trends in our culture today is the dominance of identity politics. Now by “identity politics” I am not trying to signal an oncoming conservative diatribe about social progressivism and liberal politicians. The identity politics I have in mind are everywhere–on the right, on the left, down the middle, and even in the margins. American discourse, whether political, religious, or otherwise, is riddled with tribalism and virtue signaling on the one hand, and cynicism and paranoia on the other. The result is that it’s becoming rare to see two opposite sides of an ideological spectrum actually learn something from one another.

The example I have in mind is something of a confession. When I began reading a few years ago complaints from a leftward branch in American evangelicalism about a “toxic masculinity” in our culture, I instinctively dismissed them. I knew that many of these voices abhorred ideas I cherish, such as the complementary roles of men and women in home and church. Several of them were beyond the borders of orthodoxy when it comes to sexuality and the definition of marriage. Many of the writers I saw most concerned with toxic masculinity held doctrinal views that would disqualify them from membership in my church. So, I chalked up their critiques to a wholly dysfunctional worldview, and reminded myself that going wrong on first principles inevitably leads down untrustworthy roads (which is true).

Trouble was, I began seeing inarguable evidence that they were right. Data emerged about men, pornography, and relationships that told a terrifying story. I started reading testimonies daily of women who had been harassed and degraded, very often in the male-dominated corners of the internet. Then came a relentless series of moral failings and shocking behavior from well-known Christian men, some of whom I had counted as exemplars; reading through a sad array of “official statements,”I noticed common themes of harsh, arrogant leadership and resistance to accountability.

Each of these things, in isolation, might be chalked up to nothing more sinister than the same sinful human nature that drove Adam and Eve from the tree of life. You don’t need categories like “toxic masculinity” to understand David’s lust and Uriah’s murder. But the question that kept coming back to me was: What is the church saying about this? Specifically, what was the church saying to men, about men, for the sake of men?

I don’t believe that historic Christian doctrines about marriage or sexuality cause toxic masculinity. I do, however, believe that sin causes it, and the conclusion that I’ve come to is the conclusion that I heard years ago and ignored: The American evangelical church has a blind spot when it comes to the sinful way our culture thinks of manhood.

The point was reinforced for me as I read about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two boys responsible for the Columbine high school shooting in 1999. In a piece for The Washington Post, Michael Rosenwald observes that Harris, the mind behind the massacre, took to the internet in the months leading up to the shooting to vent his out of control, hyper-macho rage. Harris cursed everyone in his life, especially the “cool” kids at school before whom he felt weak and powerless.

“I am [expletive] armed. I feel confident, strong, more Godlike” with guns, Harris wrote.

Rosenwald cites psychologist and author Peter Langman, who observes that several mass shooters have spoken similarly about the effect of violence on their self-confidence.

Take Elliot Rodger, who called himself the “kissless virgin.”

In 2014, Rodger killed six near the University of California-Santa Barbara. Before the shooting, he wrote: “I compared myself to other teenagers and became very angry that they were able to experience all of the things I’ve desired, while I was left out of it. I never had the experience of going to a party with other teenagers, I never had my first kiss, I never held hands with a girl, I never lost my virginity.”

Then he bought a Glock.

“After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed,” he wrote. “Who’s the alpha male now, [expletive]?”

Of course, it’s easy to make mass shooters a cipher into which we pour our presuppositions about culture and human nature. But the conversation about these men and their violent quest to feel a renewed manhood is one that confessional, evangelical Christians need to be having, and one we seem to be avoiding. The fact is that when Eliot Rodger felt like a deficient man because of his singleness or unpopularity, he was thinking and feeling how the secular culture of manhood told him to. What’s at stake here for the Christian church is not just keeping men from killing. It’s countering a narrative and recalibrating moral imaginations to not see self-worth in terms of strength, desirability, or people skills. But before evangelical churches can say that authoritatively to the outside culture, they have to decide to believe it on Sunday morning.

That means that we who proclaim to believe in a calling on men to lead at home and in church have to take that belief seriously enough to make ourselves uncomfortable. Where might we find a toxic masculinity at work in evangelical culture? Could it be in the way we talk about “giftedness,” often a euphemism for particular kinds of intellectual and social talents? When we say that a man is “gifted” are we just meaning that he’s a theology geek and a voracious reader of blogs–thereby implying that what God values in a man is an academic personality?

There’s a need in evangelical culture to rethink what we mean when we talk about biblical manhood. Hear me: I am not saying we need to rethink our fidelity to biblical doctrines about eldership or husbands and wives. What I am saying is that we need to accept the possibility that even in thoroughly orthodox circles, American evangelicalism fails to explicitly combat toxic masculinity. This means seeing single men as gifts of ministry to the church, and not just “works in progress” on the way to matrimony. It means seeing blue-collar builders, factory workers, and security guards as equally capable of dividing the Scriptures as their Macbook-toting millennial brothers. And it means being unafraid to critique violent, misogynistic mindsets in our culture, even if in doing so we find ourselves agreeing with those outside our fellowship.

Manhood is much more than a girlfriend on your arm or a letter on a varsity jacket. But it’s also much more than how many Christian conferences one can attend, and how many bookshelves adorn your walls. Before confessional Christians can speak prophetically to toxic masculinity out there, we must first be honest about it in here.

Was C.S. Lewis an Evolutionist?

Was C.S. Lewis an evolutionist? I’ve heard this charge laid against him more than once, sometimes by admirers but more often by those who would prefer us to be reading and quoting someone else.

The best way to answer this question is to look not just at one-off comments, but at Lewis’s intellectual trajectory as a whole. That’s what Douglas Wilson did when he recently addressed the question of Lewis’s beliefs.

Here’s the relevant quote from Wilson:

But remember that Lewis had been converted as an adult…in stages out of strident atheism. The longer he was a Christian, the more we can track his distance from evolution. In 1942, he published Perelandra, which he considered mythic, but his mythic treatment included a very historical Perelandrian Adam and Eve. And another good place to look is his essay “Funeral of a Great Myth,” which can be found in Christian Reflections. There Lewis says that evolution appeals to every part of him except for his reason.

Specifically to the point, over a period of years Lewis was a correspondent with a man named Bernard Acworth, a creationist who had sent Lewis his book on evolution. This excerpt comes from a letter written by Lewis to Acworth in 1951.

“I must confess it has shaken me: not in my belief in evolution, which was of the vaguest and most intermittent kind, but in my belief that the question was wholly unimportant. I wish I were younger. What inclines me now to think that you may be right in regarding it as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders. The section on Anthropology was especially good. … The point that the whole economy of nature demands simultaneity of at least a v. great many species is a v. sticky one.”

Lewis’s intellectual trajectory here is important. Sometimes Lewis is dinged by modern, evangelical commentators for not approaching the Scripture in a more traditionally inerrantist way. There are some legitimate criticisms of Lewis there to be found, no doubt. But I think Wilson is exactly right that Lewis’s writing indicates movement towards a biblical worldview and anthropology, not away from it.

There’s more evidence. Much of Lewis’s argument in Miracles, for example, is very welcoming to the idea that God directly interferes in natural laws. It’s always seemed to me that one of the appeals of evolution is that it relieves its patron from the awkward doctrine of an omnipotent Creator actually running around in his creation doing things. This feels like an undignified and too personal view of God, as opposed to one in which God simply implements his natural principles of cause and effect in such a way that human emergence is guaranteed. I’m not sure that Lewis would have approached the topic of Miracles the way he did if he desired to preserve the philosophical foundations of theistic evolution.

There’s also a fascinating passage in The Weight of Glory in which Lewis critiques “universal evolutionism.” (evolutionary naturalism) It seems fairly clear from this passage that Lewis believed that a) the genetic history of the world is not an infinite cycle and 2) that history and cosmic teleology was not heading, as Darwinists claim, towards greater evolutionary emergence:

…universal evolutionism is a kind of optical illusion, produced by attending exclusively to the [chicken’s] emergence from the egg. We are taught from childhood to notice how the perfect oak grows from the acorn and to forget that the acorn itself was dropped by a perfect oak. We are reminded constantly that the adult human being was an embryo, never that the life of the embryo came from two adult human beings. We love to notice that the express engine of to-day is the descendant of the ‘Rocket’; we do not equally remember that the ‘Rocket’ springs not from some even more rudimentary engine, but from something much more perfect and complicated than itself—namely, a man of genius. The obviousness or naturalness which most people seem to find in the idea of emergent evolution thus seems to be a pure hallucination. (The Weight of Glory, 104-105)

None of this demonstrates that Lewis was not a theistic evolutionist. However, it does suggest that Lewis came to believe that the evolutionary view of natural history was, at best, a royal mess, and at worst, pure nonsense. It would absolutely make sense if, by the end of his life, Lewis rejected, for all practical purposes, any sort of evolutionary explanation for human beings. Again, there’s no smoking gun for that, but it would certainly fit the pattern of his later intellectual trajectory.