The political seminary

I’ve seen this kind of zero-sum mentality before in seminary. One thing that all seminarians agree on, regardless of denomination, is that “Jesus unites, theology divides” is a terrible thing to say. And, of course, they’re right. Theology matters immensely, and as countless others have pointed out, dismissing theology is actually a form of doing theology. In the sense that theology is what we believe about God, everyone does theology. Everyone is a theologian. The only question is whether you’re doing it well or poorly.

But sometimes seminarians will smuggle something into the statement “everyone’s a theologian” that doesn’t really belong there. Sometimes, when they say that everyone does theology, what they actually mean is that everyone should think and talk about theology the way that they do. This is very different from saying that what people believe about God is theology. In this sense, “everyone’s a theologian” is actually quite misleading, because it suggests that “theologian” is simply a mindset that everyone can turn on and off at any moment, rather than a focused occupation that requires someone to take years away from something else and give it to the study of biblical and dogmatic content.

Yes, everybody does theology in a sense. But not everybody does theology in the sense that seminarians think theology ought to be done.

Everything I just said can be reverse engineered to apply to the tweet above. If you’re tracking with the politics-as-new-religion argument that I’ve been making for a while now, then think of social media activism as the modern political seminary. The lady who tweeted this wants to shame people who aren’t as politically engaged as she is, and she wants to shame them by drawing an equivalence between lack of activism and lack of concern for other people. She likely believes that everyone is political, in the sense that everyone is either campaigning for the status quo or something new. The idea that some people may not think about politics in the same way that she does is either totally foreign to her, or else she thinks it’s a bald faced lie.

Yes, everyone does politics in the sense that everyone participates in a civic system. Yes, everyone is political in the sense that everyone makes decisions and lives under laws that affect them and their neighbors. But everyone is not political and everyone does not do politics in the same way that activists believe people ought to be and do. Not everyone has an opinion on issues that you feel are urgently important. Not everyone is going to vote. Not everyone feels that things are as good or bad as you do—just like not everyone who has beliefs about God will actually read the theology books and have the theology conversations you might think they ought to have.

Not to mention the fact that one problem with logging onto social media to shame people for being “apolitical” is that your social media post is of less political consequence than when those “apolitical” people pay their taxes and chat at McDonald’s. Not only are today’s evangelists for the new political religion wrong about their message, they are not that good at evangelizing.

Cuties and Cognitive Dissonance

I could be misreading something, but it sure seems to me that a majority of defenses of Netflix’s indefensible Cuties are coming in from the same groups of folks who cheer the age of the “trigger warning” on university campuses. I’m not sure how one arrives intellectually at the conclusion that Rudyard Kipling and Huck Finn are nuclear, but a movie that would land its creator in prison had it been filmed with a camcorder instead of a film crew is not.

Actually, I take that back. I do know how one arrives at that conclusion: one decides to be for whatever the people one despises are against.

For my money, this is the single most urgent epistemological crisis in American culture. Everywhere I look I see evidence of people whose deepest moral intuitions are negative. They don’t know what they believe, but they definitely know who their enemy is. They don’t have a vision of human flourishing, but they can label the people who will enslave us all. This is deeper and worse than polarization. People can be polarized because they have strongly competing worldview. But what I’m describing doesn’t require any worldview at all. It only requires that you manufacture cultural resentments as efficiently as possible. And then what happens when a particular tribe achieves a political or social victory? I have no idea. Maybe something consistent with worldview X. But maybe something consistent with worldview Y. Who knows? That’s the point. You don’t have believe in anything in order to “win.” You just have to keep the other tribe away from power at all costs.

Against this context, “cognitive dissonance” simply stops being a thing. Cuties is the definition of low-hanging fruit for #MeToo activists; the distinction its defenders have made between depiction and endorsement did not help Salma Hayek when Harvey Weinstein insisted she perform a lewd scene in a Miramax film. If the #MeToo reckoning in the entertainment industry has shown anything at all, it’s shown that the indemnity filmmakers and artists build around their work is disingenuous.

Why then are some of those closest to the cause defending the film? The answer is that the Wrong Kind of People are criticizing it. This is moral formation in the age of the comments section: skip the article, see what Your Kind of People are saying about it, and then join the chorus.

I’ll be honest. I’m increasingly of the mind that the most relevant distinctions in American society are not between Left and Right, but between people with ideas and people with just enemies. The conservative and progressive mindsets may be irreconcilable on many points, but the differences between consciences formed by ideas and those formed by enemies are arguably bigger, deeper, and much harder to control. This may be why both political tribes tend to save their fiercest wrath for those inside the tribe who don’t join every charge against the Enemy. This is painfully obvious within progressive culture, but it happens inside conservatism too (if you doubt me, check Tim Keller’s Twitter mentions).

But this isn’t the worst part. When you exchange ideas for enemies, you open the door for things like Cuties. There are always perverted and unjust opportunists waiting to take advantage of a society too fractured to stop them. It’s how Harvey Weinstein got away with it for years. It’s how QAnon is getting away with it now. The people who can see it for what it is have no voice. The people who could see it if they wanted to refuse to look.

Power and the Blood

The Mirror and the Light is a magnificent novel that finishes a magnificent series. I tend to struggle with contemporary fiction, but Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell is so rich, so elegantly written that I couldn’t stop at any point. The depth of what Mantel has achieved is simply stunning, nothing less than a Tolstoy-esque artistic accomplishment. It’s a work of genius that I expect to reread for years to come.

What’s most interesting to me is the character of Cromwell himself, and how Mantel portrays the effect that power can have on someone unable to overcome their private sense of powerlessness. Mantel’s Cromwell used proximity to Henry VIII to further the cause of Protestantism in England, and in that he becomes much like Thomas More. But Cromwell also leveraged his authority to prop himself over against the slurs aimed at him because of his low birth. In this he becomes like Anne Boleyn: threatened into treason, manipulating the world around them to stave off fate and walking into it unawares. The three books in the series each end with beheadings: Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, then Cromwell. Mantel’s insight seems clear: these three lives are really one life, absorbed by the black hole that is power.

Can you do the Lord’s work in Henry VIII’s way? Mantel mostly steers away from explicit theological reflections on marrying the throne and altar, but her narrative brilliantly shows how the latter is almost always at the mercy of the former. One of Mirror’s best scenes is Henry’s “debate” with a Protestant “gospeller,” Robert Barnes, who denies transubstantiation. Cromwell supports Barnes; they both know the bread and wine are that and no more. Henry, though he has named himself Supreme Head of the church and executed those who object, still holds Roman sacramenentalism. Because Henry believes it, it is treason to deny it. Cromwell knows he could lend his support during Barnes’s trial, but he stays silent. When Cromwell is locked in the Tower on (questionable) allegations of treason, his fellow Protestant Thomas Cranmer has the opportunity to support, but likewise wilts. The halls of earthly power require self-preservation at the same junctures which the gospel calls for self-loss.

What’s unsettling about Mantel’s Cromwell is how ordinary he is. Some readers have objected to her sympathetic portrayal of a “hatchet man,” but I think that’s the point. We assume that only certain kinds of people can be twisted by the powers of their office. We assume politicians and judges are just born more prone to corruption than the rest of us. But lesson of the Wolf Hall trilogy is that people with humane, even evangelical aspirations can be seduced by the throne, a seduction that is fundamentally about survival (as Cromwell’s thoughts frequently betray). Cromwell, the abused son of a blacksmith, is an incredibly loyal person, but eventually that loyalty is leveraged in self-service so often that it cracks.

I’m not fond of simplistic takes about Christians and politics. It’s too easy to dismiss political power as irredeemably corrupting and insist that no true believer have anything to do with it. But this ignores both history and justice. On the other hand, Mantel’s journey through the rise and fall of Cromwell is a compelling parable about what usually happens to the human spirit when it is pressed by the demands and luxuries of authority. The world of the Tudors is of course a world in which “religious liberty” does not exist. The English-speaking world was Catholic and then it was Protestant, on the word of a capricious, power and sex-crazed sovereign. Contrast this with the founding of America. For all their (and our) moral failure, the founding fathers knew they were a group of potential Henrys, governing a society of would-be Cromwells. The beheading scaffold ends where the First Amendment begins. When theology sits on a throne, it almost always drops the gospel to pick up a sword.

Yet we are left at the end of The Mirror and the Light with a paradox. Many have been executed, but William Tyndale’s New Testament has gone forth. The king of England presumes to rule the church, but justification by faith is preached on the streets. Behold the mysterious sovereignty of God, who raises up kings and cuts them down, but whose church withstands the gates of hell.

Impotent Rage

Here’s Freddie Deboer with a point he has made many times before, but perhaps never so eloquently:

I would say at a glance that the contemporary left is defined fundamentally by both a lack of meaningful power and a corresponding tightening of the grip on the meaningless power it does have. The more we cannot get reparations, the more we rename buildings; no end to mass incarceration, but recasting of cartoons; no seats in the Senate, but oh, how we make the Poetry Foundation shake…. And the question that we’re left with is, if we never stop tightening our shaking grip, will our reach ever exceed our grasp? Do we have short arms, or are they only bent from the strain of grasping in such impotent rage?

This is such a good question…and not just to progressive leftists. What do you think would happen if we swapped out certain words in that paragraph and turned into a question for, say, Christian conservatism? It might look something like this:

I would say at a glance that the contemporary religious right is defined fundamentally by both a lack of meaningful power and a corresponding tightening of the grip on the meaningless power it does have. The more we cannot get Roe reversed, the more we call out media hypocrisy; waning evangelism and theological education, but protesting COVID-19 masks; no institutions creating Christian culture-makers, but oh, how we can trigger the libs …. And the question that we’re left with is, if we never stop tightening our shaking grip, will our reach ever exceed our grasp? Do we have short arms, or are they only bent from the strain of grasping in such impotent rage?

Hits close to home, right? The more I reflect on it the more I can’t stop suspecting that a large swath of conservative evangelicals are in a similar position as the leftists Freddie describes. Genuine cultural influence, meaningful institutional power (not just the power to appoint judges—an unreliable perk, as we’ve seen this month)—these things elude us. Baptisms keep declining. For every healthy, biblically literate church there are 4 more where Father’s Day is the least attended day of the year. Christian media, such as music, is often aggressively banal. Our cultural engagement is reactive, caught at opposite polarities of either total appropriation of secular culture (to own the fundies) or heavy-handed worldview exercises (to own the libs). The closest Christians come to a rigorous, relevant expression of principle that commands the attention of the public square is a Jungian psychologist.

Here’s what I think might be going on. Similarly to how Freddie’s fellow leftists feel politically impotent, many conservative evangelicals despair of their prophetic power. The Left processes their failure by redirecting energy to symbolic causes, trying to gain in the arena of words and names and celebrities what they feel they keep losing in the arena of policy. Likewise for religious conservatives: the Trump era represents not an attempt to re-Christianize America as much as an acceptance that we’ve lost the first battle we wanted to win (a regenerate public square). Despairing of the church’s power, religious conservatism has, like the Left, turned its attention toward victories that seem more doable: owning the libs, triggering the media, preserving 20th century cultural inflections, and having “Merry Christmas” printed on Starbucks cups. In this understanding, evangelical outrage over meaningless minutia is not arrogance, but defeatism.

This is why I don’t anticipate the recent Supreme Court losses to inspire much reevaluation of things. If the above thoughts are close, the Courts are not downstream from evangelical strategy. Rather, the current state of the church reflects acceptance of the Courts. The most pressing issues facing the church, such as racial reconciliation/justice, require spiritual revival, and it is spiritual revival that we’ve already punted on. Thus, the current status quo will continue until there’s a radical un-acceptance, a rejection of defeatism and a new conviction that the fix isn’t in, the game hasn’t already been decided, and the kingdom really doesn’t depend on the things we thought it depended on for so long.

Somewhere along the way we stopped believing gospel-shaped people really could change the world, so we stopped worrying about making gospel-shaped people. Maybe we ought to stop looking at The Washington Post and New York Times’s scoreboards because they were always showing the score of the wrong game. Impotent rage is an equal opportunity employer.

The Only Topic More Controversial Than Religion or Politics

Bridging divides and healing the commons is going to be much harder and much rarer than we want to think

In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff make a compelling case that callout culture—the punitive spirit of shutting down people’s lives and institution over their allegedly bad political views—is primarily a parenting issue. Viewing people who disagree with you as your existential enemies is, they argue, an unintended but real consequence of systematically being shielded from things you don’t like, and this dynamic begins very early. Modern parents believe their children are fragile, so they intervene early and often in their kids’ lives in order to ensure not just genuine safety but feelings of safety. But this has blowback because, as Haidt and Lukianoff argue, humans are not fragile, they are anti-fragile: confronting challenges makes human will and courage stronger, and avoiding those uncomfortable moments makes us worse, not better.

When I reviewed the book back in 2018 I chose this theme as the angle of my review. I’m glad I did that. Not everything in The Coddling has aged equally well, but the idea that parenting is at the root of much of our political and cultural dysfunction is more convincing than ever. As long as I’ve tried to understand callout culture in terms of politics or worldview, I’ve run into the same logical conundrum: How can people who believe their opponents should be destroyed not see how this belief could equally apply to them?

But what I’ve realized is that this question is based on a false premise. It assumes callout culture comes from conviction and belief, but it doesn’t. It comes from fear, and people who are controlled by fear don’t care about future ramifications. They only care about eliminating the threat. A child who hits another child for touching his toy doesn’t naturally think,”If I do this, I might want to touch his toy and he might hit me back.” That’s mature, future-oriented thinking. A child thinks, “He’s going to take my toy, that’s my toy!” Nothing else exists except the threat and the need to get rid of it.

We are all dependent on parenting to wean us off of immature thinking. The world we are looking at right now, however, is in large degree a reflection of a major shift in parenting. Recently I saw an Instagram post published by a mother who was upset at a well-known children’s book. The main character fell of his bike and said, “But I was brave and didn’t cry.” The Instagram mom objected to this dialogue and took a permanent marker to the page, where she crossed it out and wrote instead: “So I cried because I was sad.” Her point, as she explained in the post, was that children must be told their emotions are valid and expressing them honestly is always right.

Even if I couldn’t articulate it, I knew when I read that post that this was a different kind of parenting than I had experienced. Not crying even after getting hurt would have been seen in my home as admirable (though crying was certainly allowed and cared for). Emotional authenticity had its place, but it was not a virtue to be aspired to in lieu of, say, being brave or holding your temper. From this mom’s tone of prophetic righteousness I could tell this was not merely a different method but a different value system. She crossed out the book’s original dialogue because it was morally wrong to her.    For her, guarding her children from the suggestion that sometimes it is best to not express what you’re feeling is guarding them from harm.

A lot of people struggle with this kind of analysis. It comes off as generational snobbery, attacking those entitled millennials or clueless Gen Z’ers. I agree that it often sounds that way, and I also agree that generational stereotypes, even ones that seem legitimate, hurt and obscure far more than they help and illuminate. But for the life of me I can’t figure out how to make these observations, which seem really important, without sounding like a scold.

Worse, I think the role that parenting plays in the shaping of public discourse means bridging divides and healing the commons is going to be much harder and much rarer than we want to think. Polarization is a problem, yes. Sensationalistic, partisan media is a problem, for sure. But the reason these conversations bottom out is that what’s really being exposed are deeply personal intuitions that we protect because of what—or who— criticism of them implicates. If our definition of “justice” is actually ill-formed, if our treatment of those who disagree is actually cruel and regressive—then we have to confront some deeply uncomfortable possibilities about how we and our children are being oriented to the world around us. Parenting is perhaps the only topic in the world more heated than religion and politics. If you doubt that, go read Facebook. You’ll see.

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 Outer Ring

On learning wisdom from the Wrong Kind of People.

The more I read C.S. Lewis’s address on “The Inner Ring,” the more I think it is one of the most important, spiritually helpful things he ever said. It’s not only that he puts his powers of observation to a vice many of us go for long stretches of life—maybe even our whole lives—without even noticing in ourselves. No, not just that. Rather, as is typical of Lewis, it’s as if his thinking about a particular thing in a particular place for a particular audience somehow anticipates the reality of readers 70 years in the future…readers removed about as far as possible from Lewis’s own intellectual and historic context.

What Lewis describes in “The Inner Ring” is, I think, the most consequential characteristic of two institutions of American life: Social media and politics. Without inner ringism I honestly don’t know if things like Twitter or Instagram could exist. The entire infrastructure of those digital platforms depends on the fact that people will do and say and approve of what they see others doing and saying and approving of. Further, social media’s effectiveness is directly dependent on how concentrated inner ringism can become in small doses: a hashtag here, a viral witticism there. The sum of social media is an ambient cry of millions of users saying, “See? I’m one of you!”

There’s a flip side to inner-ringism, though. Lewis’s address mentions it only by implication, but especially in American political discourse, this flip side has a powerful and resilient life of its own. Call it “The Outer Ring,” or outer ringism. The Outer Ring is the logical negative of the Inner Ring. If a person’s behavior or ideas can be conditioned by the desire to belong to a certain group, then the desire to not belong to a different group yields a similar conditioning, but in the opposite direction. Outer ringism is what you see when voters instinctively distrust new information because of who appears to be citing it, or when journalists, weary of thinking, quote-tweet something with, “This is something [person the tribe doesn’t like] would say.”

In his excellent little book How to Think, Alan Jacobs directs readers to a blog post by Slate Star Codex author Scott Alexander. In “I Can Tolerate Everything Except the Outgroup,” Alexander observes that people who score themselves very high on virtues like kindness, open-mindedness, progressive values, and empathy can behave very differently if the recipient of their behavior is the Wrong Kind of Person. Alexander got an illuminating education in this when some of his social media followers rebuked him for expressing relief at the death of Osama Bin Laden, and then those same followers posted obscenely jubilant content a few days later after the death of conservative British icon Margaret Thatcher. Alexander concludes:

“I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous” And that was when something clicked for me…if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.

Of course, it’s not exactly a bold take for a conservative evangelical like me to suggest that progressives aren’t all that progressive. But lest I comfort the comfortable, every single word Alexander writes about the progressives on his social media feeds could apply to more than a few Bible-believing, culture-engaging personalities. Jacobs offers two vivid examples of this from Christian history in How to Think, and I’ve written at length about how “worldview formation” can often undermine thoughtfulness by condensing a Christian’s thought-forms into Good Tribe and Bad Tribe. Hence, evangelicals who are skeptical of vaccinations because the government or Planned Parenthood is in favor of them. When all you see are connections, you can’t see anything clearly enough.

What Lewis understood is that inner ringism is a spiritual sickness, not merely an ideological one. “Of all the passions,” Lewis says, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” The same is of course true of outer ring-ism. Lewis has in mind the person who is seduced into cruelty or immorality by the promise of belonging, but it’s just as easy to imagine the person seduced into dishonesty or even apostasy by an unwillingness to grant his critics legitimacy.

A complementarian, for example, might so cultivate a distrust and dislike of people who disagree with him on gender roles that he downplays or even ignores when they have an important point to make about abuse. This might be because he’s committing the genetic fallacy and thinks that an egalitarian worldview is invariably tilted toward error. Or it might be because he himself has endured so much opposition or unkindness from feminists that granting a point simply feels like handing his enemy one more idea by which to trap him. In either case, these impulses are unlikely to be checked by his personal inner ring, precisely because our inner rings tend to shape our outer rings. The result is a complementarian who’s right about 1 Timothy but wrong about himself—a trade-off that won’t show up on the debate floor, only in his soul. (Prov. 14:12)

Outer ringism is a spiritual sickness because it, no less than the spirit which abandons the weekly worship gathering, stiff-arms humility, reinforces unearned confidences, and makes us unlikely to receive a word in season. Of the inner ring, Lewis writes:

Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. 

The same is true for the outer ring. Once you’ve settled on deciding who the Wrong Kind of People are and why you won’t hear anything they’ve got to say, eventually all those good reasons for blacklisting them will magically seem to apply to more and more. The group you dismissed for their fundamentalist attitude will give way to the folks you reject for their strange hobbies. You’ll find yourself more and more instinctively looking for why that every so subtly convicting thing you heard from that one preacher or that one woman in church was not legitimate, because after all of course they’d say that. As this habit takes root you’ll eventually be unable to hear whatever you haven’t heard before, and, as Lewis says, you’ll find yourself always only looking.

The worst news is that, since Lewis spoke those ominous words, the invention of the Internet has guaranteed that those of us who only ever look can always have something to look at. Never have inner and outer rings been available in such large quantities.

My guess is the only real way to fight the allure of the outer ring is to stop curating one’s own mind for half a minute, and look at the people that a sovereign God has put right in front of you, right now. Unless you are in a truly exceptional situation, the humans in your direct eyesight are diverse enough that some may be what you feel are the Wrong Kind of People. Those are the people whom our Maker has commanded us to love and teach and learn from. Community can be received, but it’s the outer ring that must be stocked.

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.

Don’t Punish the Unborn with Your Vote

Christian, vote angry, but do not punish the unborn in your anger.

This week a lot of Americans, including Christians, will be voting angry. Much of that anger will be righteous and just. There is much to mourn about our national politics, much injustice to grieve, and much moral disqualification to disgust us. For that reason, I’ve seen some friends of mine post how eager they will be to get to the polls and throw a vote in the direction opposite of the White House. I get it. They’re fed up and tired.

Here’s a plea, though: Don’t punish the unborn with your angry vote. Don’t punish them by forgetting them in your zeal to see the current administration checked and the ruling party disarmed. Don’t give the abortion industry what it craves: The erstwhile support of those who know better but feel pinched into the craven dichotomies of American politics.

I’m torn about being “a single issue voter.” On the one hand, abortion is not the only injustice that matters, and we’ve seen for the past 3 years how an opportunistic political movement can manipulate pro-life convictions. Pitting the lives of unborn children against, say, the lives of unarmed black men or the lives of the unemployed poor is a depraved dualism. To the degree that single-issue pro-life politics has reinforced this dualism, it should be ashamed of itself.

On the other hand, is there a more tired, more dishonest note in our political discourse than tone-policing the pro-life movement? I fear that some well-meaning pro-lifers have inadvertently sold out their convictions by accepting the moral equivalency pushed on them by both the pro-choice left and the economic right. We are supposed to take for granted that Trump’s election has de-legitimized the pro-life movement. We are not supposed to ask the unborn children rescued at crisis pregnancy centers if they agree.

Cutting through the fog, we see two obvious truths. One, the pro-life movement has been appropriated by politicians and activists who do not share its core convictions and who are happy to use the post-Roe divisions in American society for their own ethno-nationalist gains. Two, we still have in the United States a major political party that is devoted, hand over heart, to the easy and unchecked killing of tiny people for virtually any reason whatsoever. I can’t see any way for pro-life Christians to change these truths in 2018. We are dealt a loathsome hand. But that doesn’t mean there is no wisdom to apply.

Two years ago, many evangelicals said that they were unable to vote for either major party presidential candidate. I don’t see anything that’s happened in the past two years to change this logic, at least at a party level. There may be a pro-life argument for voting for a radically pro-choice party in a given election, but I’m not sure what that argument is. Some will say that voting along abortion lines is a non-starter since neither national party is authentically pro-life. This may very well be true (in fact, I suspect it is), but it’s a little bit like saying there’s no point in being a racial justice voter since neither party is sufficiently invested in equity and reconciliation. If you think the latter logic fails while the former logic works, you should ask yourself why you think that.

In my personal view, the Christians who are able to stand on the most consistent, most cohesive political theology are the ones who refrained from picking the lesser of two evils in 2016 and will continue to decline doing so in 2018. Unborn children will almost certainly still be at the mercy of Roe v. Wade long after the White House has been flipped.

There will be a day very, very soon when the resilient American republic will repudiate (at least for a moment) what’s happened to its national politics and some semblance of sanity will return. But until an immoral judicial fiat from 1973 is reversed, there will be millions of little, defenseless, utterly vulnerable Americans who reap no benefit from that. And there will remain an entire political machine that actively works to keep it that way. How effective that political machine’s work will be depends, in part, on how many Trump-weary Christians sigh, concede the point, and elect that machine’s favored candidates. My hope is that Christians would reject this dilemma entirely, and assert the radical un-sortableness of their kingdom citizenship.

Perhaps Gandalf said it best:

“Other evils there are that may come, for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.”

 

Loving Truth in a Narrative Age

No hashtag—and no Supreme Court seat—is worth ignoring the truth

Have you ever heard the old chestnut about the difference between truth and wisdom? It goes roughly like this: Truth is the right path, or the correct knowledge, or the good choice. It is real, but it is, in a sense, just lying there. That something is true does not mean you will automatically believe it or act on it. Wisdom, then, is the bridge between seeing the truth and making decisions that accord with it. Truth stands, and wisdom walks.

So then, we could also say something like this: Truth is the objective reality, and narrative is the idea that is weaved from the assembling of various truths. When truths collide with each other, they behave like molecules. They build something bigger than their individual selves. A narrative is a perception of reality that transcends the individual statements that prop it up. If you discover that two of your favorite businesses are closing, you may tell a friend something like, “Businesses don’t survive in this town.” The closings are reality, but the fact that your hometown is hard on businesses is a narrative.

Narratives are helpful. Without them we wouldn’t be able to put truths together into a coherent whole. And often, major positive change is brought about by someone who courageously forms a narrative out of many truths and helps other people see what they’ve been missing. But here’s an important point: Narratives are not always the same as the truths themselves. A narrative is, in fact, downstream from a worldview, a consequence of interpretation. Narratives are often shaped by someone’s experience, or presuppositions, or fears. This means that one of the most important things that thinking people, especially Christians, must do is to learn how to separate truths from narratives…not for the sake of throwing out any and all narratives, but for the sake of training ourselves to love truth regardless of the narratives that can be formed around it.

In a mass media culture like ours, truth-lovers are not nearly as popular as narrative-creators. We refer to our society as polarized—polarized by politics, religion, gender, race, class, etc. This polarization is in large part due to narratives that we construct for ourselves about the world. Polarization is what happens when our narratives about others, particularly those who are different than us, dictate our behavior. We are polarized politically when we de-friend someone because of their views, choosing to construct a narrative that says that people with these kinds of views are dishonest or dangerous. We are polarized racially when we avoid uncomfortable videos of American citizens being harassed or shot by law enforcement, due to our preexisting narrative that says that the police will only bother someone if they’re really breaking the law. And we are polarized by gender when men and women turn on one another, building narratives that either justify sexual mistreatment or presuppose its existence regardless of evidence.

Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, and the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse when he was 17, have exposed some deeply depressing hostility between our political sides, and also between men and women. Whether Kavanaugh is guilty of what Christine Blasey Ford accuses him of is unknowable for 99% of us. But un-knowability does not preclude building a narrative; in fact, narratives often thrive on the impossibility of confident knowledge. What I’ve seen in the past several weeks is a deep, emotional, and possibly destructive contrast in narratives between those who believe that Ford’s story is a watershed moment in a #MeToo reckoning, and those who believe that truth is being deliberately obscured for the sake of political advantage. The two narratives are incompatible and enemies of one another, even as the best evidence points toward the truth’s being far more complex than that.

What is happening is not that two groups on opposite sides of a cultural divide are wielding contrasting facts and arguments, and coming through reason and contemplation to two different verdicts. No. What’s happening is that two groups are unloading both of their narratives onto the other, and clinging desperately to notions about what must have happened, or what politicians always do, or how much this sounds like other cases. One narrative sees the world through a highly gendered lens in which men, especially privileged men, are instinctively predatory. The other narrative sees the world as controlled by gnawing politicians, who orchestrate far-reaching conspiracies to hold onto power and inflict their ideology onto the helpless masses.

Both narratives are informed by truth: Men can and do prey on women, and politicians can and do lie. Both narratives are buffered by experiences, the experiences of victimized women and slandered men. Most importantly, both narratives land squarely on two of the tenderest wounds in our national conscience. The Sexual Revolution has been ruthlessly cruel to women and the conservative Christian response has frequently failed to come to their aid. On the flip side, our national politics have arguably never been more cynical, more myopic, or more hostile to reason and good faith. Despair beckons, and its call is attractive.

But good news people—”evangelicals”—cannot give into despair, because despair does not accord with truth. Loving the truth in a narrative age requires cultivating habits that resist the “speak now, think later” spirit of the day. There are good books on how to do just this. But before we come to the skills, we have to remember why it is that Christians have to gravitate to truth before narrative. Narratives are formed by fallen humans trying to interpret life from a limited angle. Even narratives shaped by deep, real trauma are nonetheless liable to go wrong, because it is human nature to take something real and try to make it do something it cannot do. We cannot be known as narrative-first people, who traffic in mantras and slogans and hashtags and conspiracy theories at the expense of truth.

Whether Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Ford I do not know. Here’s what I do know: Men are sinners, and they sin against women, and they sin against women sexually. I also know that not every man has sexually abused a woman, and that not every accusation of sexual assault is true simply because it was made. I also know that drunkenness is a sin and that drunken people do indefensible things. I also know that “innocent until proven guilty” is a standard rooted in God’s law, and that an instinct to protect from allegations until evidence is presented is a good instinct that can protect poor and vulnerable people just as much as it can protect the privileged.

These are the truths I know. They do not build a tidy narrative. But I’m a gospel person, and thus I am a truth-seeking person first and foremost. No hashtag and no Supreme Court seat is worth ignoring the truth, because neither of those things can finally set us free.