Why Panic Won’t Save Us

A response to Peggy Noonan

“Sometimes paranoia is just good sense.”

So writes Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. Her point is well-made. Everyone should take the COVID-19 virus seriously, listen to experts and make choices that take into account the well-being of others. These are high-stakes times. Churches and schools are shuttering for weeks; hospitals sit on the brink of being overrun. There are moments when wisdom and compassion look like overreaction, and right now is one of those moments.

Still, I wish I could tell Peggy Noonan that panic won’t save us. It never does.

The Bible has much to say about fear, and nearly all of it is either a promise or a warning. On the one hand, God’s people have boatloads of promises from our sovereign king that he is with us and fights for us. Fear, even fear of death, melts in the beams of eternal love and security.  On the other hand, God’s people also have many warnings about misdirecting our fear. Jesus warned us that we ought not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul, and the context implies that misdirected fear can be a sign that our souls are not as safe as we think.

There is a kind of “fear” that gives birth to prudence. Washing your hands many more times than usual because of a viral contagion in your community is prudent, and it comes from an awareness that failing to wash could endanger you or someone else. To some extent that is fear, but it is healthy.  But we should clearly distinguish fear from panic. Noonan writes

“Don’t panic” is what nervous, defensive people say when someone warns of coming trouble. They don’t want to hear it, so their message is “Don’t worry like a coward, be blithely unconcerned like a brave person.”

Noonan is a brilliant columnist, but I think she’s wrong here. For Christians especially, courting panic is not rooted in realism, it is rooted in the opposite. A heart captivated by crippling, all-consuming panic is living in a fantasy world, in which there is no God, no divine power over pathogens or nations, and no promise of forever good to all those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Panic says, “This fearful thing is ultimate, thus it is worthy of my fullest dread.” That’s not realism because it’s not true. Coronavirus is not in charge because God is.

That’s not a false dichotomy, it is a crucial one. Contrary to the scoffers who sneer at those who offer “thoughts and prayers” in moments of cultural unrest, remembering God and his power are part of what it means to respond rightly to real threats. In an essay in her volume The Givenness of Things, Maryilnne Robinson points out that one of the most noticeable characteristics of a secular age is its widespread fearfulness. Commenting on Leviticus 26:37, Robinson writes, “Those who forget God, the single assurance of our safety…can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears.”

Of course, coronavirus is not an irrational fear. But the power of panic is in turning normal concerns into abnormal ones. One of the clearest signs we have surrendered our emotional lives to the reign of fear is that we swap putting our real daily burdens on the Lord for trying to mentally stomach all kinds of imaginary trials. In The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape counsels his underling to spiritually attack a human by redirecting his attention away from what’s actually happening and toward what could happen.

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s [=God’s] will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him—the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say ‘Thy will be done,’ and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided.

It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it.

God’s promises that he will always be with us, that he will strengthen and establish us, and that nothing will ever separate us from his love in Christ are so precious precisely because they are calibrated for the exact suffering we are facing. The voice of panic tells us that unless we fantasize sufficiently about every possible kind of suffering we may face, we will be unprepared, out of control, and ultimately left alone. But faith is honest and clear-eyed. It sees the trial right in front of it, but it also looks above and sees the One who tells it to cast all cares on him, because he cares for you.

While giving in to panic may feel like “realism” in the moment, it actually hinders our ability to serve others well. Several years ago it was revealed that the icebergs that decimated the HMS Titanic were spotted with more than enough time for the ship to turn and avoid them. But the  second officer panicked after seeing the icebergs and turned the ship the wrong way, leading the Titanic directly into harm.

This isn’t just about theological correctness. Wise actions, the kind of wise actions that preserve life, almost never happen in a context of utter panic. Emotional fortitude is realism minus impulsiveness. That’s why we’re supposed to let the fog of anger response pass before speaking (Psalm 4:4). It’s why wisdom is found in a multitude of counselors (Prov. 15:22). Panic tends to turn inwardly on itself, rejecting patience as foolish and outside review as pointless. That the overwhelming portrait of the Christian life in Scripture is one of calm and humble submission to wisdom tells us how much God values a heart freed from panic.

Panic won’t save us. Instead of panic, let there be wisdom. Wisdom can heal the flesh and refresh the bones (Prov. 3:8), and it actually starts with fear—not of a pandemic, but of the Lord (Prov. 1:7).

photo credit: Gage Skidmore

The Magic of Secularism

Contemporary paganism meets modern individualism.

Alan Jacobs recently linked to a concise summary by Charles Taylor of “buffered selves” vs “porous selves.” The dichotomy is crucial to Taylor’s thesis in A Secular Age. Taylor argues that the essence of secular modernism is the transition from an enchanted world—which creates porous selves—to a disenchanted one, which creates buffered selves. Here’s how Jacobs puts it:

The porous self is open to a wide range of forces, from the divine to the demonic; the buffered self is protected from those forces, understands them as definitively outside of it. The attraction of the porous self is that it offers a rich, multidimensional cosmos that’s full of life and saturated in meaning; but that cosmos also feels dangerous. One’s very being can become a site of contestation among powerful animate forces. The buffered self provides bulwarks against all that: it denies the existence of those forces or demotes them to delusions that can be eradicated through therapy or medication. But the world of the buffered self can feel lonely, empty, flat. “Is that all there is?”

Sometimes this contrast is referred to as the difference between paganism and modernism. Paganism is a magical worldview, where spirits roam the cosmos, elixirs heal body and mind, and the self is open to the influences and effects of a whole spectrum of metaphysical forces. Modernism is the age of science, logic, and rational belief. Spirits do not roam, bacteria and viruses do. The world is disenchanted in the sense that it can be explained without reference to things beyond the material.

Almost everyone would say that we live in a rationalistic age. We are buffered against the superstitions of our pre-modern ancestors through modern science, medicine, philosophy—the heritage of developed Western thought.

Or are we?

Consider a thought exercise. Ask yourself this: Is the individualistic, self-determining, self-expressive ethos of modern society a porous worldview, or a buffered one? In other words, is “follow your heart” the logical sum of rationalism or is it closer to a mystical mantra? If you’ve read many books on this topic, especially books about identity, you probably got a good dose of “From Descartes to Nietzsche” history of ideas. These books argue that Western rationalism created the modern self. I think that’s probably true and as reliable a narrative of how-we-got-here as we’re going to get.

But here’s where it gets interesting. There is a cultural rise right now for actual paganism (witchcraft). In this Atlantic piece, the author and her interviewees frame the contemporary pagan self in explicitly fashionable terms. It seems there’s a seamless continuity between being a witch and “telling your truth.” Stay for the final sentence:

Now 38 years old, Diaz remembers that when she was growing up, her family’s spellwork felt taboo. But over the past few years, witchcraft, long viewed with suspicion and even hostility, has transmuted into a mainstream phenomenon. The coven is the new squad: There are sea witches, city witches, cottage witches, kitchen witches, and influencer witches, who share recipes for moon water or dreamy photos of altars bathed in candlelight. There are witches living in Winnipeg and Indiana, San Francisco and Dubai; hosting moon rituals in Manhattan’s public parks and selling $11.99 hangover cures that “adjust the vibration of alcohol so that it doesn’t add extra density and energetic ‘weight’ to your aura.”

…To Diaz, a witch is “an embodiment of her truth in all its power”; among other magic practitioners, witch might embody a religious affiliation, political act, wellness regimen, “hot new lewk,” or some combination of the above. “I’m doing magic when I march in the streets for causes I believe in,” Pam Grossman, a witch and an author, wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

“I’m doing magic when I march in the streets” is about a clean a summary of the post-Christian West as you could ever read. The porous theology of Wicca is transposed onto politics-as-religion, and the essence of telling one’s pagan truth is to become an activist. The only question is whether it’s the secular, political identity that is masquerading as a witch, or if the paganism is putting on an activist front. I think somebody committed to the Cartesian theory of self-expressionism would say the former. But what if it’s the latter? What if modern witches reach for political self-actualization precisely because the Modern Self is not a rationalistic creature but a mystical one?

There are clues that point me toward that theory. For one thing, the liturgical and creedal nature of social media culture strongly suggests that many in the contemporary West are becoming less shy acting on impulses and habits that are religious in shape. For another thing, the ecclesiastical personality of spaces like university campuses—featuring excommunication, defenses of orthodoxy, etc—reveal not so much a secularized public square but a religiously redirected one. Yes, in one sense formal religious affiliation is thinning, but in another sense, religious practices have arguably never been more mainstream.

I’m reminded of a great blog post a few years ago in which Ross Douthat flagged a feature essay in Elle magazine about a woman’s experience with mediums. Pointing out that irreligious Americans tend to show interest in things like spiritualism and astrology, Douthat argued that the best way to understand modern secularization is not as a negation of the numinous, but as an ambivalence toward it. I think that’s a compelling theory, and it stands as a challenge to Christian observers of culture to get too sucked into a “transition” narrative—from porous to buffered, from pre-modern to secular—without accounting for the ways in which human nature falls back into contradiction in order to meets its felt needs. As tidy and seamless as the line from Descartes to Disney may seem, there are complications along the way.

And one of those complications is the impure alchemy of many modern worldviews. If the dogma of modern paganism is to be “an embodiment of your truth in all its power,” then we should ask whether the porous selves of the witch coven are plagiarizing expressive individualism, or whether the whole time expressive individualism was actually plagiarizing the porous Self. It could very well be that the arc of post-Christian history doesn’t finally point toward the scientific laboratory or transhuman technology, but toward Amazon, Oprah, and activist witchcraft.

Label Me!

Personality profiling is a way for moderns to receive an identity, rather than craft one.

Everyone who knows anything at all knows you must never attribute someone’s character or behavior to their identity. It is universally agreed in polite society that no person is ever good or bad at something because of their gender, or their race, their family, sexuality, etc. To indulge in this reasoning is at best a crude stereotype, at worst an expression of flagrant bigotry. A president of Harvard University was once forced to resign simply for observing that male students displayed more consistent interest in and aptitude for mathematics and science than female students (an observation which was backed up by all the relevant data, and still is). The unwritten law is clear: A person’s ethnic, genetic, or sexual identity must never explain anything about them.

This makes the cultural fascination with personality profiling all the more intriguing to me. To listen to people talk to one another about their Enneagram numbers is to listen to urbane, educated, and socially conscious people insist on being labeled. It’s not simply that the Enneagram is fun in the same way that all self-knowledge tools are fun. There will always be a market for figuring out the “secrets” about oneself. But the Enneagram fandom I’ve seen takes it quite a bit further. Your Enneagram number is not simply descriptive, it is explanatory and authoritative. Listen closely to enthusiasts talk about their experience with the test, and you will hear explicit appeals to one’s profile as an explanation for even the most trivial facts or behaviors. Their conversation is peppered with phrases like, “I’m such a 7,” or, “Yeah, that’s a very 4 thing to say.”

The same thing happens with in introvert/extrovert conversation. Depending on which you are, certain kinds of habits or tendencies can be expected from you, and it’s a matter of social decorum for others to recognize this. Introverts get nervous at invitations to gatherings; they’d rather watch Netflix at home. Thus, relating well to the introvert in your life means (among other things) not taking offense when they don’t show up. You should also learn how to work with introverts, date them, and recognize the dozens of signs you’re probably one of them.

It took me a long time to realize just how odd this kind of pathological self-categorization really is. For one thing, I’ve always believed myself to be an introvert, and I’ve claimed the label throughout most of my adult life whenever I was uncomfortable or wanted to protect my time. For me, introversion has often been permission: permission to not be like those around me, to make choices others didn’t understand, and to be my own person.

But then I started realizing that it no other aspect of life was I as ready to sort myself into a prefabricated category. Why did I so readily accept the logic of personality profiling when that same logic, if applied to my skin color, my childhood, or anything else about me, would likely deeply offend? More to the point, why did so many people around me — people who rejected all species of stereotypes and determinism — make an exception for their personality?

Here’s one guess: Personality profiling is the last politically-acceptable way of receiving an identity, rather than crafting one. And many people today are weary of crafting their own custom identity and would very much like to belong to something instead.

It’s not been that long since the most fundamental fact about you was considered to be your family. For most of human history an individual’s life was conditioned by their parents. You lived where your parents lived (likely until death). You worked at what your parents worked. Your marriage was in large part downstream from your parents’ relationships and community. You were born into a religion, you were born into a value system, and you would born into a social fabric.

When most of us hear this description of the past we drop down on our knees and thank God that unlike our pre-liberal ancestors, we are not consigned to a pre-written fate. Every Disney film ever made is at some point a story about a person remaking themselves into their own image, getting out from under the restrictive and unfeeling expectations of their family. That’s the kind of story that resonates with Western people who feel their individuality keenly.

You won’t find me arguing that upward mobility is a bad thing, or that people should have no option to improve their life. But something is definitely lost to our humanity when the only identity available to us is one we have to tirelessly craft. There’s something in most of us that tells us that to belong and to be received is better than self-determination. It’s not an accident that The Rise of Skywalker, in its pursuit of fan satisfaction, essentially re-wrote the story of Rey to give her a family name after all. After spending two films arguing that Rey’s anonymity was immaterial and that she could build her own identity through her actions, the filmmakers end the ill-fated trilogy with a scene in which Rey assumes the last name Skywalker. To belong is better than to self-determine.

I wonder then if personality profiling is a kind of refuge for those of us who’ve been catechized in hyper-individuality. A finite amount of Enneagram numbers means that you really can belong to a group. Who you are is not opaque, it is discoverable. Maybe there’s something deep within Western people that craves the kind of self-knowledge that comes from outside rather than inside. Weary of curating our own sense of self, sometimes we just need to be assigned a number and know who we are.

Safe, Legal, and Rare

A conversation between three friends.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of a conference call.

Legal: Good evening, friends. Thanks for joining this conversation

Safe and Rare: [together] Thank you as well. Glad to be here.

Legal: I hope both of you are OK with my emceeing this thing. It’s mainly for the sake of convenience. Besides, it’s kinda logical, right? Legal is kind of what brings us together in this.

Safe: Absolutely. No worries here.

Rare: I agree it’s logical. I’m fine with it, but I do hope our conversation will be about more than keeping abortion legal.

Legal: Oh, I agree. There are multiple layers to this issue, but my point was that the bottom layer, the thing that keeps our ideas together, is legality.  If abortion is illegal there’s no point in talking about how safe or rare it is.

Safe: Hold on right there. Can you clarify what you mean by that last sentence?

Rare: Yes, I’d like to hear more too.

Legal: Well, I’m not sure how much clearer that can be. Do we really have a disagreement over the importance of legality?

Rare: I’m not disputing that keeping abortion legal is important. But I think…

Safe: [interjecting] Right, I wanted though to ask about how you worded that sentence. You said if it abortion is illegal “there’s no point” in talking about safety. To me, though, that plays into the pro-life rhetoric. Our entire point is that keeping abortion legal will keep it regulated and therefore more safe. So in a way, I’d actually say the opposite of what you said. If abortion can’t be safe, who would want to keep it legal?

Legal: Well…

Rare [interjecting] Hold on. Safe, what did you mean by that just now?

Safe: Which part?

Rare: You said if abortion isn’t safe, why wouldn’t it automatically be rare?

Safe: Yes.

Rare: That’s not the point, though. Most abortions done by licensed professionals ARE safe. Seeking to make abortions safer is important but we need to think about how to make them less of a necessity. If you focus entirely on keeping it legal or safe, you haven’t addressed the underlying issue of why abortions happen.

Legal: Rare, I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. I think it’s fine if abortions end up less common, but making that a point of emphasis sends the wrong message. It seems to imply that abortion is a necessary evil. That kind of rhetoric won’t keep abortion an option for women very long. If something is a necessary evil, people will start asking why it is necessary.  But that’s not our message. Abortion access is absolutely necessary and it’s a human rights issue to make sure women have that option.

Safe: [interjecting] Real quick, I just want to add that SAFE abortion access is a human right. Can’t forget that word.

Legal: Certainly. Safe abortion access is a huge issue. But I wouldn’t qualify what I said. Abortion should always be a shame-free option for every woman…

Safe: Wait one second. Why are you hesitant to qualify what you said? What’s wrong with trying to keep abortion safe?

Legal: Nothing at all. But I do think it’s possible that talking so much about how to make abortion safer or better timed or whatever can obscure our point about its role in culture. Abortion is a perfectly legitimate expression of reproductive health. You can unintentionally communicate otherwise…

Safe: How?

Legal: Well, two good exmaples are parental notification laws and ultrasound requirements. The vast majority of our advocates oppose those measures, for good reason. They place illegitimate barriers between women and reproductive health. But that’s an example how emphasizing “safety” can actually encroach on abortion rights.

Rare: I’m glad you mention those two laws. I understand your concerns about them but it seems to me that if we’re concerned with making abortion less common, those kinds of measures could help with that. There are some practical benefits, I think….

Safe: Agreed, Rare. There’s some value in making sure that people aren’t being coerced or manipulated into abortion, right Legal?

Legal: Sure, but none of that changes my point. Abortion needs to be legal because it is a moral right, not mainly because it can be administered responsibly. Even if it’s not done in a moral way, abortion is still a good thing for society.  That’s why laws that obstruct it….

Rare: Wait one moment. Isn’t Kermit Gosnell an example of what happens when you empower abortion beyond the margins of safety and public good?

Safe: Yes.

Legal: Not really. Gosnell, as monstrous as he was, was almost himself a victim. He and his patients suffered under abortion’s social stigma. Without it he probably wouldn’t have been able to do what he did even if he had wanted to.

Safe: Even if you’re right…

Rare: Well I reject that completely. Kermit Gosnell was not a victim. He’s a psychopath. And…

Safe: [interjecting] That explanation doesn’t do much for his victims, or prevent future ones.

Rare: …the reason he got away with it for so long is that we don’t have a culture that encourages alternatives to abortion. We don’t have anything that meets these young girls where they are and gives guidance…

Legal: [interjecting] Ok, now you sound like a pro-lifer.

[laughter]

Legal: Seriously, Safe, explain that to me. How do you recommend preventing those kinds of atrocities.

Safe: Whenever you find someone like Gosnell you’ve found a crack that somebody slipped through. I don’t at all challenge your premise that abortion needs to be available. But the reason for that goes beyond your explanation. Abortion needs to be legal because if it’s not then a black market filled with Gosnells will flood our communities. I trust that’s something we can all agree would be a disaster.

Rare: Yes.

Legal: I agree. But how do you avoid saying that abortion should be regulated the way pro-lifers say it should be if your main goal is to keep it “safe”? If the problem with illegalizing abortion is that people will get hurt by the abortions they get, how do you consistently oppose things like ultrasound laws?

Safe: Well…

Rare: Are we absolutely sure we’re against those laws?

Legal: I certainly hope so.

Safe: If your goal is to make something safe, then I think you should assume the safer it gets, the more people can and will utilize it. I think that gets to where, Legal, you and I agree.

Legal: OK, but can you answer my question?

Safe: Listen: Keeping abortion legal and keeping it safe don’t contradict each other. We can do both. But we actually have to try. If we can’t keep legal abortion safe, we shouldn’t have it legal either.

Rare: Agreed!

Legal: See? That’s the attitude I thought I was hearing. It’s almost an apathy towards legality. If it’s a choice between taking a step down a dangerous road and risking imperfect scenarios, we should choose the latter.

Rare: Ok, one thing about this conversation worries me. Up to this point both of you have assumed that if it were possible to make as many abortions possible as safe as possible, we should do that. I don’t feel that way.

Legal: Why?

Rare: Because we need to keep abortion rare. Women shouldn’t be forced into a corner.

Legal: Abortion isn’t a corner. It’s legitimate birth control.

Safe: Correct.

Rare: Wait a minute. So you don’t see anything tragic at all about an unplanned pregnancy? An unwanted child?

Legal: Those are tragic. Abortion is a solution to those tragedies. It’s not itself tragic. Let me put it this way. How can we say with a straight face that abortion is both a tragedy and a human right? Are there tragic human rights?

Safe: There are human rights that can turn into tragedies. Freedom of the press is a human right but if done wrong it can ruin lives.

Rare: I don’t understand. I was under the impression we can be both against abortion and for its legality.

Legal: That’s what politicians need to be saying, yes. But everyone knows when it comes to writing policy, you have to prioritize legality. This is why we are for requiring companies to subsidize abortafacient contraceptives in their insurance. If companies didn’t have to do that, we would probably make aborted pregnancies less common, but we would be sending the wrong message.

Rare: But can’t we be honest about the emotional stakes involved with abortion? Shouldn’t we try to prevent the circumstance in the first place? Honestly the “wrong message” stuff sounds silly.

Legal: It sounds silly only because you are playing by pro-life’s rules. If you think abortion is mainly a sad, regrettable thing, then by all means, talk it down and legislate it until it eventually disappears. How safe do you think abortions will be after that happens?

Safe: Not safe. But that doesn’t mean we should regulate its practice.

Rare: You’re making a big logical error, Legal. You seem the think the choice is between infinity abortions and zero abortions. You still haven’t explained why this can’t be both a sad and legal thing?

Legal: Just a question, Rare. Why is abortion sad?

Safe: It’s risky and invasive for one.

Rare: And it’s the loss of something.

Legal: No, you’re wrong. It’s not the loss of anything. We can’t drive within 100 yards of personhood. The minute we do that, we might as well give up.

Safe: I agree with that.

Rare: Me too. But, women do report being affected emotionally by their abortions. It’s not like getting a wart removed.

Legal: Only because we still have a culture that shames reproductive freedom. And our rhetoric has to change that. For every 1 time we say abortion should be rare, we should be saying 5 times that its a perfectly moral option for women. Period.

Rare: That’s a fair point.

Safe: Agreed.

Legal: Listen, the options are simple: Either people can make their own choices and have control of their own bodies, or, be pro-life. It’s one or the other. That’s why I said at the beginning keeping abortion legal is the central point. And I suppose I assumed there was more agreement about that than there actually is.

Safe: It needs to be legal so it can be safe. Legal harm is still harm.

Rare: It may need to be legal so it can be safe, but it needs to be a small part of our culture.

Safe: I think the one thing we agree on is this: A woman’s body is her body. A woman’s pregnancy is her pregnancy. The question is, how do we honor this autonomy?

Rare: We make abortion rare.

Safe: We make abortion safe.

Legal: We keep abortion legal.

All: Glad we agree.

The Meaning of Kanye

The evangelical Kanye moment reveals more about evangelicals than Kanye.

The evangelical blogosphere is already bowed down under an alarmingly large stack of think-pieces on the Christendom-shaping event that is Kanye West’s Jesus is King. For the sake of everyone, I won’t belabor this post either with a detailed summary of What’s Going On (if you don’t know by now, blessed are you and highly favored…please choose another piece), or with a list of admonitions for evangelicals when hearing of celebrity conversion (that work has been done excellently by others). My only contribution to this conversation is not primarily about Ye, but we—theologically conversant evangelicals who may be learning more about ourselves than anyone else.

The widespread enthusiasim for Jesus is King in particular and for its artist’s new platform in general is not, in the end, that surprising. High profile professions of Christian faith have generated buzz among evangelicals for a long time, with the stakes ranging from the fashionable to the political. As Thomas Kidd has pointed out, interest in the Christian utterings of wealthy, powerful people is almost as much a part of evangelical history as the utterings themselves. Thus we ought not get carried away and somehow conclude that Kanye’s Twitter mentions in theological circles is evidence of some kind of transformation of our tribe. It’s rather par for the course.

Another reason the buzz makes sense is that Kanye, unlike many other fellow celebrities who’ve dabbled in Jesus, has been clear, assertive, and unapologetically evangelical in his talking points. A brief sampling of recent interviews makes it obvious why Reformed evangelicals in particular might be excited. Whereas many celebrities openly try to reconcile their God talk with the spirit of the age—this pathetic exchange on The Bachelorette comes to mind—West seems to have embraced the counter cultural implications of the gospel, resulting in some truly unexpected and intimate reflections on everything from his marriage to “spiritual but not religious” Christianity.

So the optimism expressed by many conservative evangelicals that one of the most powerful, visible and influential musical artists in the world may now be one of them is understandable, even justifiable. The evidence is there. Interpreting that evidence straightforwardly is, I think, a better option than retreating into the cynicism that dogs so much evangelical cultural engagement. Better to be found with the love that “hopes all things” and be disappointed than to be a self-protective noisy gong.

Yet the conversation cannot end there. The enthusiasm for Christian Kanye is warranted, but it is also revelatory. We conservative evangelicals have shown yet again that the warmest welcomes in our tribe are often reserved for people who say all the right things about all the right topics, and no, I’m not talking about justification by faith or substitutionary atonement. Perhaps the meaning of the evangelical Kanye moment is not necessarily the genuineness of one celebrity’s confession, but the genuineness of ours.

It is revealing to me, for example, that the Reformed evangelical water cooler could pivot so seamlessly from a dispiriting bout of mud slinging over Beth Moore and John MacArthur to a rapturous, unmitigated welcome for a millionaire rapper whose lucrative career is loaded down with pornography, hatefulness, and extreme delusions of grandeur. What has become apparent to me over the past couple of weeks is that there are more than a few evangelical Christians who already feel a deeper sense of camaraderie and solidarity with Kanye West than they do with other believers who have labored for decades in ministry, avoided both public scandal and theological heresy, but who differ on second-order doctrines of gender roles and the ordering of public worship. To be clear, I have in mind both Moore and MacArthur here, who have each (regardless how you interpret the recent dust-up) borne their fair share of truly discouraging invective from those who claim to believe in the same gospel.

I found myself discombobulated by the sheer speed of transition: One minute, entire tribes of evangelicals were viciously accusing one another of nothing less than rhetoric and behavior that compromised the very message of Christ, and the next, a rich, powerful, politically ambitious cultural kingpin was being extolled as a gospel “wrecking ball.” Does this hierarchy of values reflect the Lord’s warning that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom? Does this mindset amplify the brotherhood and sisterhood that even we who disagree on important topics enjoy in the “one new man” that Jesus has created in himself? Or, does this episode possibly reflect a systemic worldliness in how many American Christians, Reformed and otherwise, think about the kingdom: that it is threatened by complementarians or Bible study writers, but obviously strengthened by the fantastically wealthy and famous?

I don’t want anyone to read me as lamenting denominational divisions or even limits of fellowship within the Body. To say that whether a woman can preach to the assembled congregation is a second order issue is not to say it is marginal; I believe it’s a very significant question, one that has huge implications for the single most important spiritual practice of believers, the church gathering. I cannot see how those who disagree on this question could together lead a church, nor can I see the benefit in trying. As a complementarian, I could not and cannot submit to the leadership of a local church that is on the wrong side of Scripture.

But when second order issues assume a controlling power in how we feel, think, and behave toward one another, it is very likely that those second order issues have been allowed to become first order ones. The results of that confusion are catastrophic, as any visit to an Independent Fundamentalist church can make clear in seconds.

The marks of conversion are not the ability to recite all the theological talking points with which my tribe fully agrees. They are deeper, more intimate, more heartward. It is very, very good to hear Kanye open up about his struggles with sexual sin and his new desires for his daughter. An issue I hope that will be put in front of Ye very soon is what to do with the copious sexually explicit material that he has already produced and released, to critical and public acclaim. Zaccheus’s past was not an argument against the realness of his conversion, but Jesus did wait until the tax collector promised to repay those he had defrauded before declaring that salvation had come to his house.

Kanye’s thrilling sound bytes on the problems of individualistic religion or the delusions of liberals don’t compare in importance to his ongoing repentance and Spirit-empowered willingness to lose gain for the sake of obedience. There is also the question of whether West has been leveraging his new audience with Christians for additional platform and access to power. The evangelical blind-spot toward political manipulation, as old as Nixon and as new as Donald Trump, is not a secret to those who may be counseling Kanye. Will he be willing to settle in as a new Christian, under the authority of a local church, relinquishing any claims to theological authority, per 1 Timothy 3:6? There is much to be seen. Love hopes all things!

And if that is true for Kanye, it is also true for an evangelical culture that looks deeply fractured, increasingly held hostage by trolls and clickbaiters, willing to compromise with worldly means to get desired theological ends. Love indeed hopes all things, and if that affects how we think about the wealthiest and most famous converts, but not the brothers and sisters who have been laboring for a long time, obscure to 99% of the world, then it has not been believed quite yet.

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photo credit: Marcus Linder, Flickr.

Engaging Culture From Ahead, Not From Behind

Why Christians shouldn’t let elite journalism set the agenda anymore.

Let me describe an experience that has become very common for me over the years.

I’ll navigate to a well-trafficked Christian blog or publication. The major headlines are almost exclusively devoted to other headlines, from a secular newspaper, journal, or magazine. You see, the entire purpose of this Christian site is to recapitulate what else has been published in mainstream journalism, and to offer a theological or political commentary on it. Whether the topic is “throuples” in Manhattan, the latest ritual at Burning Man, or a tenured professor’s tweets, the conversation is always started by the consensus of prestigious journalism institutions on what we need to be talking about.

Based on my experience, this is what a lot of evangelicals mean by “engaging culture.” Like the cast and crew commentary on the Special Features section of a DVD, this mode of engaging culture adds Christian words to a preexisting perception of the world. Here’s what the editors of The New York Times, CNN, The Atlantic, and BBC want you to be thinking about. “Here’s commentary from a Christian point of view to accompany your thinking about these things. Now you can go and think!”

There is certainly something valuable in offering believers this kind of resource. Especially for Christians whose career puts them in close contact with thoughtful unbelievers, being able to intelligently answer questions has massive evangelistic implications. It’s also true that many American Christians lack the training these resources offer.

But lately I’ve wondered whether something is insufficient, not merely with the kind of commentary being offered but with the genre of writing itself. Does this kind of cultural engagement presume something potentially untrue—namely, that Christians should be thinking heavily on the kind of stories featured in the pages of elite media? Behind that question lies another, perhaps more complex one: Does what we read in the pages and watch on the screens of American media actually represent our “culture,” or does it just represent the ambitions and imaginations of media moguls?

The 2016 presidential election raised serious doubts among many that mainstream American journalists understood their own nation. In fact, in the shocking aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, many of them said so. Trump’s victory was unthinkable to any whose vision of society was shaped by the stories and ideas promulgated by national media outlets like The Washington Post or Forbes. Some self-reflective members of the media concluded that their work culture was insular and severely disconnected from the concerns and convictions of a huge chunk of American voters. I think that’s a reasonable conclusion.

Evangelicals have sometimes thought of “culture” as a monolith, a coherent ambience that is the sum total of Hollywood, education, the bestseller lists, and journalism. In my experience it’s common for Christians to talk of “the” culture without any effort to specify whose culture is being talked about. This is evident in something I’ve talked about here before: The tendency of a lot of Christian literature to offer over-generalized aphorisms and observations that don’t take into account how different people in different places need to hear different things.

We often talk about purity culture as if it there is only one kind of purity culture, and every single evangelical in America experiences that singular purity culture in the same way. But even a minute’s reflection will reveal that to be spectacularly untrue. Evangelicals raised in rigid, homeschooling environments have a particular experience with the doctrine of chastity that another Christian with a background in nominal religious culture won’t necessarily have. One church in evangelical Christianity uses Scripture to shame and brutalize teen girls over their sin, while another church sweeps the adultery of the minister or the pornography of an elder under the rug. “Culture” is multifaceted.

If culture is not a singular, omnipresent thing, then it makes sense to suppose that perhaps it needn’t always be engaged at face value. Here’s what I mean: What evangelicals mean by “culture” when they talk about engaging culture is in a very real sense a product, something created by an individual or a group and traceable to them. It is therefore a mistake to suppose that whatever ends up in the longform section of The New York Times necessarily represents “where culture is going.” The longform section of the NYT isn’t created by “culture,” it’s created by individuals and groups that want to manufacture something: an idea, a fad, etc.

The reason this matters is that engaging 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.

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What would it look like to engage culture from ahead rather than behind? Simply put, it means fostering Christian publications and ministries and writers who are able to think at a theological and anthropological level rather than merely a journalistic one.

A great example of the potential for Christians to set the intellectual agenda for others is technology. Secular society for the most part sees nothing at all moral in the newest developments from Silicon Valley. But there is a growing number of secular Americans who nonetheless feel that something is being lost in the omnipresence of screens. This is a tremendous opportunity for Christians to supply unbelievers with the language they seek but lack. Christians believe in the inherent goodness of the created world, but also in the indelible tendency of fallen humans to curve the resources of this created world toward sinful, selfish ends. The reason many Americans feel alienated by the technocratic culture is that we are not designed like robots, but in the image of a relational, rational God with real presence. To be disconnected from the physical world is to become less like the God in whose image we are made, thus, to become less human.

On the issue of technology and human flourishing, Christians have the ideas and categories that explain why things are the way they are. And here’s the upshot: Almost everyone in your church, neighborhood, school, workplace, or family has a smartphone. Almost everyone is connected to the liturgies of the internet. Compare that to how many people you personally know who are sending their kids to Drag Queen Story Hour, and you have an idea what is actually relevant to your culture. True, The New Yorker is much more interested in genderqueer libraries. That doesn’t mean you should be.

Take another example: Depression and suicide. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that anxiety, loneliness, and self-harm are among the most pressing issues facing believers in the West today. The numbers are staggering, the testimonies are too numerous to count, and the severity of the problem is only rising. People are dying of despair. Lots of people. People in your town, in your church. Maybe in your own home.

You’ll get a different answer as to why this is depending on whether you listen to economists, sociologists, doctors, activists, or journalists. Shouldn’t those who believe in a God of life, a God who puts the lonely in families, a God who wipes away tears and will live inside sinners like an explosive spring of water—shouldn’t we be setting the agenda here? Deaths of despair in a rich, affluent time are not surprising to people who know the real condition of the human heart. Are we speaking to this the way we could? Or does the lack of political leverage to this story make us bored, uninterested, or even apathetic? Sometimes I wonder if labeling everything as “culture war” makes us blind to actual death.

The point is that by engaging culture from behind, we shrink our world and our mission field. Being unable to tell the difference in urgency between the carryings on of coastal trust fund socialites and the silent cries of those sitting right next to us is a colossal miscalculation. It is, actually, failing to engage culture at all. It doesn’t “engage” because it usually fails to persuade (and honestly isn’t meant to). And it mistakenly identifies as “culture” what could probably more accurately be described as “anticulture.”

Engaging culture from ahead begins with a careful posture of learning and discernment. It prioritizes life and death rather than language and signaling. And it seeks to speak into a specific need rather than a news cycle. It’s not as lucrative, and it’s frankly not as easy. But it’s obedient.

Is Reality Only for the Privileged?

Is retreating from social media really a “privileged” thing to do?

Listen to this post:

Whenever someone points out the dangers of social media and recommends curtailing use or abandoning it altogether, a response I’m starting to hear a lot more often is that abstaining from social media is an expression of privilege. Though it’s not always made explicit, I think the idea behind this argument is that social media is a democratic tool by which many people express social and political opinions or perhaps engage in activism. Thus, social media has intrinsic value as a vehicle of “engagement,” including (and maybe especially for) ethnic, sexual, or economic minorities who might otherwise never be offered a platform to speak.

Calling on folks to cancel their Twitter accounts is therefore on one hand an implicit call for less visibility of these marginalized voices; on the other hand, it’s also a failure to see (or perhaps even a failure to regard) the positive effects of social media for certain kinds of people, vs. the relative comfort and lack of social or existential disruption that majority culture people would experience by deleting their accounts.

As someone who is actively trying to reduce and ultimately eliminate my social media footprint, I take this response seriously. If it’s an accurate and coherent objection, then my deletion of certain social media memberships and my thousands of words spent critiquing the technology are de facto failures to love my marginalized neighbors, and such failure demands repentance and a change of ways. I also respect this objection because it makes an objective claim of value on social media and doesn’t impishly retreat to, “Well, whatever works for you, just don’t force your opinions on people.” In other words, full-throated defenses of social media on the basis of privilege and marginalization are arguments that actually understand the seriousness of what social media critics are saying.

Nevertheless, I think this argument is deeply flawed. More than that, I think it’s flawed in the exact ways that we should expect ideas shaped by social media culture to be flawed. Let me offer a brief rundown of these flaws.

Flaw 1: This objection accepts what social media corporations say about themselves at face value.

One of the major indictments against social media is the knowledge we’ve gleaned over the past 13 years (roughly Facebook’s lifespan) about how these Silicon Valley companies design their products. We now know they’re designed to be addictive. We now know they’re designed to hit mental triggers that release feelings of intimacy and productivity. We now know that the CEOs and braintrusts of the major social media corporations tend to have disturbing views about everything from personal well-being to utopia. To sum up, we now know not to conflate tech industry marketing with the product itself.

The argument that social media levels the playing field and gives platform to heretofore marginalized voices assumes that the kind of exposure and “platform” that happens on social media is an unmitigated good kind. But to assume this means to assume that social media technology is what it appears to be. Is there a reason to assume this? What if the “platform” of social media is actually an algorithmic illusion designed to make users more dependent on the technology and in the process less likely to understand or even care about what cannot be experienced through it? What if 10,000 retweets send a chemical affirmation to your brain of being seen and heard, but in reality half of those retweets are from people who simply wanted to join in with their friends in RTing you, 1/3 are from non-human accounts, and the remaining 2,000 are a niche group who will neither do anything about what you said or even remember it after dinner? Let’s say all that is at least plausibly true. Would it be more accurate to say that Twitter has given you a platform, or that Twitter has rewarded your time on the site with a temporary dose of extra entertainment?

There are very good reasons to believe, as several media and technology critics are now saying, that social media culture is significantly disconnected from “real life,” and that what happens within social media culture is often self-referential and fails to escape the walls of algorithm. Assuming that’s true, we can’t say with any degree of confidence that the platform bestowed on anyone—regardless of race, gender, or class—is the kind of platform that can sustain and empower positive offline transformation. Instead, it seems just as likely that the addictive elements of social media, which translate into thousands of hours being spent on the technology every day by many of the same socially conscious users who might otherwise be doing something else, are mostly sunk costs.

Flaw 2: This objection assumes that the democratizing effects of the Internet are best mediated through social media networks.

Beneath the objection that social media abstention is an expression of socioeconomic privilege is another assumption about the nature of social media—specifically, that it really does challenge the privileged, platform the marginalized, and level the playing field better than the alternative online technologies. But this is an unnecessary and inaccurate assumption.

Measuring social media’s real-life effects are tricky. For one thing, “social media” doesn’t seem to be a monolithic entity with equivalent effects in every sphere of life. Facebook and Instagram seem to be better at helping people sell stuff, whereas Twitter is considerably more likely to affect what gets talked about in newspapers, magazines, and cable news. Which example of social media influence is more “real”? Obviously, it depends on what you mean.

The most important aspect of any social media platform is the number of users on it. But there are other, more significant things to consider, such as privacy, and it’s not at all apparent to me that the advantages of a highly populated social network should always trump concerns about user data. Someone might argue that Facebook is still worth using, despite its absolutely terrifying track record on user privacy, because of its massive user base and potential reach, but only a foolish person would argue that privacy is never worth missing out on being part of a huge network.

As it is, there are good reasons to think that the current configuration of the online economy is very broken, and that it would be better for everyone—rich, poor, white, black, straight, gay—if the Silicon Valley model were trashed and replaced with an ownership-driven digital commons. Again, you don’t have to cancel your Facebook account today in order to grant there are good reasons to question the wisdom of the social media corporations. Wise, kind, justice-oriented people are doing just that.

Flaw 3: This objection gets “privilege” backward.

It seems extraordinary to me that anyone would define privilege as “the inability or unwillingness to spend portions of my day typing out messages online for strangers.” While it may not be exactly right to say that social media per se is classed, it would definitely be fair to say that social media activism—the kind of activism this objection takes as incumbent on moral people—is an activity available to a small, select group of users. Plenty of American workers cannot even look at their phones during their work hours.

Twitter especially seems to be an online activity geared toward knowledge workers with surplus time in their day (i.e., privileged folks). According to Pew, 80% of all content on Twitter comes from 10% of the site’s accounts. In other words, what goes on in Twitter-land is dictated by a very small, very select conglomeration of power users, brands, and algorithms. Twitter reflects the experiences and views of working class Americans about as well as Lake Shore Drive does.

A large majority of tweets come from a small minority of tweeters

By arguing that social media silence is privileged, critics of digital minimalism reveal to what extent they have conflated a particular kind of sub-cultural pastime with basic responsible citizenship. This conflation isn’t only socially and economically ridiculous, it’s also hostile to the formation of an emotionally and spiritually healthy public square. Thinking, grieving, and praying in silence, away from the pressures to signal our virtues or vices in exchange for clout, is not an act of privilege as much as it is an act of humanity.

Whether you cancel your social media accounts is not as important as thinking and feeling properly toward these digital technologies. I humbly submit that one evidence we are failing to think and feel properly toward them is when we react illogically when they are critiqued. The architects of Silicon Valley are more than happy to make billions out of our neurological dependence on notifications. Everyone, from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged to the most privileged and powerful, should be more than resistant to hand it to them.

Why Facebook Failed

During the summer before my freshman year of college I registered for a Facebook account. Since I wasn’t yet a student at any of the schools whose “network” Facebook required all users to join, I had to pick a regional network, in my case Louisville, Kentucky. I immediately added friends from high school, church, summer camp, etc. Almost overnight the friendships that were ordinarily built around structured, shared times—like college classes—grew into 24/7 connectedness. I learned about my friends through posts and photos, and most exciting of all, relationship status updates. When I think back to the first couple years of Facebook I invariably think of the same ten or so people who made it rewarding for me. Facebook brought me further up and further into a community I desired. At times it felt unreal, but most other times it felt like it made the real times more real.

This past spring, roughly 12 years after registering for Facebook, I decided there wasn’t any point to it anymore. I deleted my profile and haven’t looked back. Though it took me until now to do it, deactivating was surprisingly easy, even routine. There just wasn’t a sense of loss. The thrill was gone.

In the early days Facebook was charming and rewarding. I logged in with a naively hopeful expectation of seeing something happy. Something close to the opposite is true now. Facebook has become a slog, a digital membership I kept for years not out of delight or even usefulness but out of serfdom to Mark Zuckerberg’s reign over the writer’s economy. For me, it’s not even ultimately about the obnoxious polarization or “fake news.” Sure, those are ills, as is Facebook’s appalling use of data. But I confess I could probably live with all those things. Facebook’s sins don’t alienate me nearly as much as its nature. There was something about the experience of social media ten years ago that was almost beautiful in its own way. Now it feels hollow beyond redemption.

Many younger Facebook users have no possible way of understanding how different the site was around 2008-2010. It’s common nowadays to refer to Facebook as part of someone’s “platform,” and that word helpfully reveals the transformation I’m talking about. Once upon a time the experience of Facebook was very much the experience of a “network,” ie, a place where people were put into contact with one another and the point of the site was to facilitate some kind of mutuality. This was evidenced by Facebook’s requirement in the beginning that new users join a preexisting college group as part of their registration. This process mapped Facebook users into a specific location and helped the website facilitate something genuinely local. Flawed? Misleading? Certainly. But still, it was a kind of community, something that at least vaguely resembled or at least supported offline friendship.

Now, Facebook is a platform, not a network. As Michael Brendan Doughtery points out, what Facebook most resembles is a multimedia publishing company, except one not bound by the same laws as actual publishing companies. It’s a tool for individuals to bolster themselves in a digital economy. This can be literal, as in the cases of people who use Facebook professionally and flood the newsfeeds of those who “Like” their page; or it can be metaphorical, as in the case of normal Facebook users who nonetheless use the page almost exclusively to initiate some sort of self-serving interaction with others (I confess that for at least the past 2 or 3 years, this is basically how I was using the site). In the not too distant past you could scroll endlessly through your Facebook “feed without any clicking—or even seeing—any external links. Multi-level marketing, bloggers, and sensational “fake news” headlines have obliterated this experience beyond recall.

The question is why. Is it because people have changed in the past ten years and this is what they are genuinely after nowadays? Or is it that Facebook has steadily configured its website to reward people who use it a platform and punish people who want to use it as a network?

Facebook’s recent ad campaign in response to controversy over its use of data and political content is a clever acknowledgement that the site isn’t what it used to be. But fake news and political overload are symptoms, not causes. They’re symptoms of Facebook’s overall structural evolution, from a site designed to put you in close proximity with people in your life to a site that replaces you with itself.

The best example of this is Facebook’s notification system. In a previous life, a notification from Facebook was almost always to let you know that something meaningful had happened on your page: Someone asked to be your friend, someone wrote on your “wall” (an appealingly spatial term that has been replaced with ephemeral Big Data jargon, “timeline”), someone tagged you in a photo, or invited you to an event (that wasn’t a sales pitch). Again, depending on when you started using Facebook, you may have zero idea the kind of site I’m describing.

Somewhere along the road Facebook decided it would use its notification system to drive us insane—or, more accurately, to drive our attention and our money into the waiting arms of third party developers. We started getting notifications when someone we didn’t know commented on a photograph 3 days after we did, or when a “friend” we barely spoke to needed to send invites in order to get fake tokens for the game they were playing, or (my personal un-favorite) whenever someone was merely “interested” in attending some event within 100 miles of you. In 2008 a notification on Facebook meant something happened that merited a response from you. In 2019, a notification means that Facebook thinks you should spend more time on the site.

Lifting its signature “network” requirement was a crucial first step that signaled the trade-offs that would happen as a social network became a ridiculously lucrative media platform. The reason Facebook thrived even in the years when it required a preexisting network membership was that such a requirement made Facebook a valuable social commodity. People want to belong, and they wanted to belong to Facebook only because the real people with whom they already wanted to belong also belonged to it. In this way Facebook was actually a remarkably intuitive technology: An online gateway to offline membership.

Almost every major technological or aesthetic decision Facebook has made since has severed the connection between online and offline. Consider the site’s decision to combine its messaging feature and its inline chat feature. When Facebook introduced Chat around 2009, it was an obvious idea that made sense given the value of instant messaging. For several years there was a difference between receiving a chat and receiving a message. A chat was like a text message. An inbox message was more like an email—more personalized, thought-out, and less spontaneous.

Facebook eliminated this distinction from their system several years ago. A chat is now automatically archived as an inbox message, and an inbox message appears (if the recipient hasn’t turned off the chat feature) as a chat. This may seem insignificant at first, but it’s actually a very revealing feature. Facebook’s developers decided that it wasn’t in the site’s best interest to assume that people might use an instant messaging feature differently than they use an inbox. Why not? Because such a distinction assumes that Facebook can be used differently for different purposes. That’s not what Facebook’s developers want to happen. They want a Facebook that is creating and dictating the user experience, not serving it. Collapsing the distinction between an IM and an email is a good way to encourage people to always be reachable on the platform.

Facebook is thus mostly about itself, not about the people on the other side of the screen. There’s a reason Facebook is now overrun with people trying to sell stuff: that’s what this kind of technology is actually good for. Facebook’s design is now a naked attempt to cultivate addiction, and addiction and marketing have always gone hand-in-hand (“A man with an addiction is a man with very little sales-resistance,” wrote C.S. Lewis). In the absence of being truly connected with friends and family, tech users look for emotional fulfillment in buying and selling, in political diatribes and personal brand building. Meanwhile, the clicks just keep coming.

Nostalgia for Facebook’s more sanguine days reminds me of the conversation many Christians are having about classical liberalism. Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed, Rod Dreher’s bestseller The Benedict Option, Jake Meador’s new In Search of the Common Good, and other books and articles all describe a cultural transformation similar in spirit to the transformation of Facebook. These writers describe the deterioration of solid institutions and meaningful civil life in favor of a “liquid modernity,” an absolute autonomous freedom that is self-evidently ultimate. Affluence, libertine individualism, and social mobility quickly eroded and replaced it with the atomized, therapeutic self-determination that dominates our contemporary society.

I’m wondering if Facebook’s slow burn from a social network into a multi billion-dollar media platform might be some kind of symbol or symptom for this much larger (and of course, more important) cultural shift. Why did my experience of Facebook downgrade like it did? The first answer is that Facebook changed. Chasing profits and clicks, it fell into an all-too-familiar, all-too-American pattern of trying to create customers who served the product rather than a product that served its customers. This is, in a crude way, the failure of liberalism (or, if you prefer Deneen’s explanation, its success). Liberalism begins on the premise that it is meeting inalienable human needs of liberty, and it ends by creating people who are permanently indentured to morally empty social order. Facebook’s algorithms favor people who choose to manipulate them through outrage and compulsion. Liberalism’s anticulture, its own kind of algorithm, likewise favors those who can most efficiently exploit the freedoms of others.

Perhaps Facebook, in its own way, typifies the critique of classical liberalism. It’s become an engorged technology that feasts on the shortened attention spans and withered credulity of its users. Yet the site itself is succeeding marvelously, because its algorithms do with astonishing efficiency precisely what they’re designed to do: Minimize the personal and the beautiful while maximizing the perceived value of the site. Meanwhile, the only thing that can puncture Facebook’s PR is high profile scandal, like the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, much like the only serious reconsideration of American cultural mores usually comes through economic disaster or something like the #MeToo epidemic. Facebook’s response to scandal is to produce sympathetic ads while trying to get banks to fork over their clients’ personal info. Our sociopolitical response to scandal is not much better: More diversity seminars, more HR training, more outsourcing of our moral and intellectual work to corporations and pop culture—while we remain as indifferent to our inherent dysfunctions as Facebook is toward their algorithms. Our mobile society is lonely and fragmented, and ironically, all you have to do is spend a couple hours “connecting” on Facebook to experience it.

Will Facebook will ever become a substantially better experience than it is right now? That’s hard to say. Stacking the odds against it are Facebook’s gargantuan profitability and domineering of the news economy. It’s rare to see a corporation that monetizes its worst tendencies this effectively backtrack. The reason it’s difficult to imagine a better Facebook is the same reason many critics of contemporary liberalism cannot imagine a genuine renewal of our public life; repentance is always hard, but its doubly so when you have to repent from something you’re really good at.

And yet, unlike Facebook, the public square is still salted by the gospel and its army of churches, filled with the refugees of a disenchanted age. On Facebook there is only the power to curate. In the world outside we must confront un-curated reality, and come to terms with a bloody world that demands a bloody salvation. The best Facebook can offer is to help us meet up with our fellow man. The best Christ can offer is to come to us himself. Any critique of classical liberalism that doesn’t explicitly locate the remedy in the person, work, and community of Jesus, fails.

Years ago, my friends and I would laugh as we thought about what it would be like to still be on Facebook as adults with children. We were so busy laughing at the idea that we hardly noticed when it actually happened. I want more for my two-year-old son than the empty promises of going viral, accumulating “Likes” and being sucked in an endless algorithm. Yet I have to confess that the thought of his going off to college and not having a Facebook for me to keep up with is a sad thought. I can’t say definitively what his experience of the digital world will be like. But I’m pretty sure it will be a mixed bag that requires him to constantly reassess his heart, weigh his time, and choose the true, good, and beautiful above all. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s really what we should be doing all the time—especially when logged in.

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 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.