An Unlived Life

I’ve been thinking about this Joshua Rothman essay about our “unlived lives” ever since Alan Jacobs linked to it. Part of that probably has to do with the fact that I’m now a couple years deep into my 30s, and the 30s feel (so far) as if they are the quintessential “what if” decade. I am far enough now from adolescence and the open road of the college years to see what could have gone differently. I was talking to a dear friend just last night, whose post-seminary life has not at all followed the script he thought it would. He’s faithful and happy, but I could hear in his voice—not regret, exactly, but perhaps sobriety, a lingering, ambient wonderment at the difference between the road he thought he’d been on and the one he ended up traveling.

I don’t know if Christians enjoy talking about this. I wonder if there is a subtle guilt for believers in probing our unlived lives, as if the realization that they exist are an expression of ingratitude to God or discontent with his care. Obviously those feelings are possible, and we all know one or two people who fell into the pit self-oriented bitterness and never really got out. That’s real, and dangerous. But might it also be dangerous to assume that God’s sovereign goodness over our lives is never to be looked at any angle other than the present? God’s providence does not mean that our choices add up to zero or that there is no good use in contemplating the paths we took when more options were before us.

In fact, it’s not exactly a secret that being unable to come to terms with one’s life in a meaningful way tends to open the door for some destructive aftermath. I’m reminded of a very helpful observation from Russell Moore, coming from his years of pastoral and counseling experience:

A common theme I have found in adulterous affairs is that the one cheating is almost always seeking to recapture the feeling of adolescence or young adulthood. For a short period of time, the person is swept up in the drama of “I love you; do you love me” romance, without all the burdens of who is picking up Chloe from school or what day to put the recycling bin out at the curb or how to budget for the mortgage. The secret lover seems to make the married person feel young or “alive” again, until everything comes crashing down. The person is usually not looking for a sexual experience but for an alternative universe, one in which he or she made different choices.

I felt the truth of this observation a few months ago when Carl Lentz, former pastor of Hillsong Church in New York, was fired for adultery. Illicit sex, even among ministers, is sadly unremarkable. What stood out more about the whole story was that Lentz almost immediately connected the affair to his “burnout” and exhaustion in his ministry, as if the adultery were more about rewriting the script of his life than sexual pleasure. Remember that story a few years ago about the extramarital hookup app Ashely Madison? The tagline of the website (which was hacked and its clients, including “family values” activists, exposed) was, “Life is short…have an affair.” Those who seek to profit from adultery know that the short, often dissatisfying nature of daily life is the spark a wildfire needs.

But it’s not just extramarital affairs. Our unlived lives can manifest themselves in all sorts of replacement-level habits and experiences. I’m beginning to suspect that in my own life my use of social media, especially Twitter, has much to do with a sense of compensation for a lack of meaningful, challenging interpersonal relationships. I go to Twitter to experience a digital version of the conversations that I don’t have offline. I think about Lewis and Tolkien and the Inklings, a group of likeminded peers who cultivated over many years a warm intimacy that stretched them spiritually and intellectually. Life if the 21st century seems to be set up to make such a gathering of men my age almost impossible; even churches typically think of men’s gatherings as primarily opportunities to be taught and/or rebuked (this is why, in many church cultures, men receive accountability while women receive encouragement and support).

When the values of society are set up to prioritize nonstop efficiency and “productivity,” and then afterwards ruthlessly curated and isolating forms of entertainment, a concept ike Twitter—where people gather to merely talk—feels almost quaint. Social media, at least in its better moments, feels like a paean to that “unlived life” of close knit relationship. We know in our hearts that social media is not true community, which is why we’ve spent a year of pandemic lockdown dangerously depressed and anxious. How many people are on social media obsessively not because they’ve never experienced actual community, but because they have, and because the older they got, the more the people and places disappeared, leaving a hole that only social media apps even pretended to fill?

Even given the dangers, I think Christians ought to be thoughtful about unlived lives. To know that our lives could have been different, that other choices  could have been made and other paths taken, can evoke something better than nostalgia. There’s a serious gratitude that wells up in the corners of one’s heart when you consider how the people, places, and tasks that you now love were given to you through a series of events over which you exercised only the most minuscule forms of control. If my pastor father had taken a different church when I was 14, or if we had not moved that year at all, it’s almost certain I never would have met my wife. Who else would I have met or fallen in love with? Who knows, but the point is, those unlived lives  apart from Emily are not the sweet, tender, rich reality I have now. To ask whether a different life would have been better is to impose my current definition of “better” onto the past. But I only know what words like “better” mean to me because of the life I actually lived.

To meditate on our unlived lives—to meditate well—is to understand just how un-shaped we are without the elements of life that we don’t necessarily choose. And what is true of our past is equally true of the present and future. Where we are right now and with whom we are right now are molding and shaping us, and all at the mercy of a God who promises only a fate of good for those who love him.

Russell Moore Was Right

There is so much that can and must be said about today’s surreal events in Washington. I am not up to the task for most of them. But there is one thing I want to say, briefly, but forcefully.

Russell Moore was right about Donald Trump. The events of the last several weeks, and the last few days in particular, make this unquestionable. He was right when he said that evangelicals were making a Devil’s bargain by excusing or baptizing Trump’s debauched persona and wicked rhetoric. He was right when he said that character matters. He was right when he said that a leader like Trump is fundamentally untrustworthy and that this lack of honor cannot be papered over by self-reported political ideas.

Moore was also right when he said that Christians who championed Trump’s candidacy were putting themselves into a position to own his sins and lose moral legitimacy in the eyes of a world that hadn’t forgotten their “values” during the Clinton years. Moore was right, and the numerous images flooding in of people holding “Jesus Saves” signs while they cheer the storming of the Capitol prove that he was right. Just as sober minded conservatives are recognizing that their ideological movement owns this terrifying display of anarchy, any sober minded American Christian must recognize that the church in the US now owns it too. I’m not saying this is fair or logical. I’m saying it’s reality. And I’m saying we knew it was going to happen.

But for saying all this, Moore was not only debated and criticized, he was threatened, punished, and bullied. The infrastructure of the Southern Baptist Convention failed to defend one of its most respected entity heads and kowtowed to the voices of churches and leaders who should have been led, not deferred to. Moore was not the only evangelical Baptist who warned us about Donald Trump, but he was frequently the most consistent, most visible, and most Bible and gospel-centered voice. He didn’t just talk about the politics. He talked about the church. It was the church that Moore feared would buckle under the moral sludge of an unqualified President. But it was the church that attributed the most outrageously false motives to Moore. It was the church that told itself Moore was a closet liberal. It was the church that found more trustworthiness in an unrepentant, twice-divorced Playboy billionaire than in one of its own pastors.

And now, tonight, family members text me that people in their churches were at the protests, bragging about how the “capitol was ours now.” Church members. Not professional protesters, not QAnon cultists. ChristiansChristians with Bibles, and Sunday school classes. Christians storming the halls of Congress on behalf of a lie, peddled by a lover of lies. 

And I’m sitting here, reading these texts and seeing these Bible verse placards, and thinking, “Moore was right.” And somebody needs to say so.

Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned tonight, it’s that not saying something can carry a higher cost than you ever thought. 

Memo to my Fellow Southern Baptists: Might Is Not Right

First Baptist Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress’s comments about President Donald Trump (for whom he is an official surrogate) and North Korea are deeply irresponsible, even if interpreted in the most charitable light imaginable. In remarks to The Washington Post, Jeffress said:

When it comes to how we should deal with evil doers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-un. I’m heartened to see that our president — contrary to what we’ve seen with past administrations who have taken, at best, a sheepish stance toward dictators and oppressors — will not tolerate any threat against the American people. When President Trump draws a red line, he will not erase it, move it, or back away from it. Thank God for a president who is serious about protecting our country.

Note carefully that Jeffress doesn’t simply assert just war theory, or argue that protecting American citizens is paramount for the government. Instead, he baldy assumes the role of Old Testament prophet and says that God has specifically given President Trump a specific moral clearance to wage war against a specific leader and country. This isn’t just political commentary from a pastor. It’s Urim and Thummim.

I thought this was exactly the kind of partisan, divisive rhetoric that Southern Baptist leadership was so concerned about with regards to the ERLC and this summer’s resolution on the alt-right? Wasn’t Russell Moore pressured by megachurch pastors and SBC personalities to tone down what they felt was his too-assertive critique of the Trump campaign? Wasn’t the problem with Moore allegedly that he was not “staying in his lane” as head of the moral and public policy arm of Southern Baptists, that he was over-politicizing his platform?

“Ok,” you may respond, “but Moore is the head of an SBC entity, and Jeffress is merely a pastor of an SBC church.” To which I say: Yes, he’s the pastor of a 12,000 member church, in the most Southern Baptist state in the country. Does Southern Baptist leadership really not think that when Americans hear or read Jeffress offer blanket endorsements of war, they think he speaks for Southern Baptists? If Moore’s comments were problematic in that they confused people as to the official position of the denomination (which is precisely what many of his loudest critics claimed was the issue), there is no reason why Jeffress’s comments shouldn’t be viewed as equally problematic–unless, of course, the right people in the denomination agree with Jeffress and disagree with Moore.

And I certainly hope that’s not true, because if it is, I fear my denominational home may be slouching toward Zarathustra. What Jeffress told the Washington Post is a thinly veiled appeal to “might is right.” Why are we so confident that President Trump has God’s green light to start a war? Well, it’s because—wait for it–he’s President. It’s because he can. That’s the message we’re getting from one of the most influential SBC pastors in the country. God has become Thomas Cromwell, rewriting revelation so the king can do as he please.

This is a disgrace.

Southern Baptist leadership needs to take these comments as a serious error signal as to the health of the denomination. When prominent pastors whose political alliances can cause people like Russell Moore to be on the defensive for their job are talking like this in public, something has gone drastically wrong. Many Southern Baptist seminaries and colleges teach just war theory, insisting that because all people are made in God’s image, the burden of proof for military violence is very high. That’s a noble tradition, a biblically responsible one. It’s a far cry from the shameless Nietzschean call to arms we’re hearing right now.

 

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The Pagans Who Will Save Christian Publishing

I was reminded recently of one of my favorite anecdotes from Russell Moore. It’s about the day that Dr. Carl F.H. Henry told him that the next great Christian leaders were probably pagans right now:

Several of us were lamenting the miserable shape of the church, about so much doctrinal vacuity, vapid preaching, non-existent discipleship. We asked Dr. Henry if he saw any hope in the coming generation of evangelicals.

And I will never forget his reply.

“Why, you speak as though Christianity were genetic,” he said. “Of course, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals. But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current evangelical establishment. They are probably still pagans.”

“Who knew that Saul of Tarsus was to be the great apostle to the Gentiles?” he asked us. “Who knew that God would raise up a C.S. Lewis, a Charles Colson? They were unbelievers who, once saved by the grace of God, were mighty warriors for the faith.”

The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynist, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Billy Graham might be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be making posters for a Gay Pride March right now. The next Mother Teresa might be managing an abortion clinic right now.

Thinking about this encouraging story, I realized that this could easily be applied to the world of Christian publishing. Not long ago I wrote about the current shape of things in the world of Christian books. My diagnosis was grim, but I held out hope for better things in the decades to come, especially if evangelicals consciously cultivate a better and more robust theology of the arts. As I’ve thought about Christian publishing since writing that post, I think I understand part of what will happen in the renewal of Christian writing:

It will happen primarily becuase of people who aren’t even Christians right now.

I really believe this. I believe that a theologically sturdy, artistically compelling, and genuinely meaningful new Christian imagination will be shaped most significantly by those who come to the faith from the outside. The important Christian novelists and poets and essayists of a post-Benedict Option church will be men and women who spent years in opposition to it. Perhaps the next Graham Greene is organizing campus protests of conservatives right now. Maybe the heir to Marilynne Robinson is, this moment, #StandingWithPlannedParenthood.

Why do I think this? Three reasons.

First, evangelicalism as a gospel-heralding, embodied church reality is much stronger than evangelicalism as an insular, Christ-against-culture ideology. The fact is that one of the reasons Christian writing is the condition that it’s in right now is that the specter of a poorly-read, culturally timid fundamentalism still haunts much of the evangelical imagination. As I’ve said before, there are too many Christians who believe “family-friendly” means Christian and order their aesthetic intake accordingly. I’m becoming convinced that the next generation of great Christian writers is going to have to be one that is far more well-versed in great art than most of Christian subculture.

Second, I think the future of truly great Christian writing will not necessarily be marketed as such. The niche markets of “faith-based” books, music, and movies is one that by its nature resists truly great art. If your goal is to target a demographic with content that is easy to sell, why would you care if your content reads more like a boilerplate Hallmark movie novelization than like “The Remains of the Day”?

It’s important to note that we’ve already seen this dynamic do utter destruction to the Christian music industry. The pretenses of music and literature designed by marketers rather than artists cannot survive the collapse of retail giants like Family Christian Stores. It’s not going to matter who sells what anymore. What’s going to matter is what’s on the page. We are going to find echoes of Eden where we don’t necessarily expect to find them.

Finally, the next generation of great writers will be writers who have passed from death to life and know it. There’s just something about people who have been converted to Christ from outright unbelief. Those who have been forgiven much, love much. The voices most able to communicate creation, fall, and redemption will not be those for whom Christ is an identity politic. It will be those who love Jesus because he first loved them. I’m reminded of how C.S. Lewis noticed how rare it is to hear of someone’s being converted from atheism to “demythologized,” liberal Christianity: “I think that when unbelievers come in at all, they come in a good deal further.”

The future of Christian writing is bright, even if right now it may be shrouded in darkness. That should come as no surprise to those of us who know how the Light works.

My Top Books of 2015

Here some of my favorite reads from 2015

Here some of my favorite reads from 2015. Note that not every book here was actually released in 2015, but all are books that I read this year. There’s no ranking, so the order is more or less arbitrary.

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.endaffair

I discovered this book and Graham Greene courtesy of a fine essay by Matthew Schmitz. I bought two of Greene’s novels immediately at the local used bookstore, and devoured The End of the Affair quickly. This wasn’t an easy novel to read, nor was it immediately satisfying in the conventional ways that we often want from novels. But Greene’s portrait of an adulterous relationship, and the torment that comes to those who suppress the righteous protests of their conscience, is a haunting and moving story, and one that ends ultimately in the recognition that God is the source of true love.

41BfG5+LceL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Road to Character, by David Brooks

David Brooks is one of my favorite columnists, so when I heard that he was writing a book about becoming a moral person, I figured this was going to be a must-read. Brooks is not just a talented wordsmith; he’s a fluid and provocative thinker who isn’t afraid to follow his instincts and his cultural analysis to inconvenient (yet honest) conclusions. The Road to the Character shines brightest when Brooks directs his attention towards cultural attitudes that have eroded individual quests  for moral formation. As a Christian, I resonated with many of Brooks’s points, though the book isn’t written from a distinctly Christian standpoint and thus lacks the theological roots that we need to really become more like Christ. Still, as a (somewhat) religiously neutral commentary on society and morality, The Road to Character is a fascinating and enlightening read.

Onward, by Russell Mooremoore

I work for Russell Moore, so you may be tempted to dismiss this entry as sheer schlepping. But that would be a mistake, because Onward is genuinely one of the most compelling Christian books I’ve read in years. Moore’s great gift is articulating a completely Christian civic engagement, one that looks like Christ not only in its voting record but also in its prioritization of the kingdom. I’ll put it simply: This is a book that must be read by any Christian who cares about living as a gospel witness in their culture.

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr18143977

This WWII-era novel about a young boy thrust into the violence and evil of Hitler’s Youth and a blind girl struggling to survive the occupation of Paris is a gripping, beautifully written tale. Doerr skillfully weaves the vulnerability and hope of childhood with the brutal wages of war, and the result is a book that you won’t put down. An upcoming movie adaptation means you should read this book as soon as possible, for I can practically guarantee that Doerr’s prose is deeper and more satisfying than any screenplay could capture.

The Stories We Tell, by Mike Cosper

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If you’re an average American, there’s a good chance that you enjoy a good movie and an interesting TV show. But if you’re also a Christian, you probably want to know how and why stores like film and TV fit into God’s good gift of creation and culture. That’s where Mike Cosper’s book The Stories We Tell can help you. Mike’s book is a helpful and eminently practical primer on why cultural mediums like film and TV appeal to us on a human level, in light of our being created by a story-telling God. If you need a reason to check out this book, I’ll tell you that one of the chapters is titled, “Honey Boo Boo and the Weight of Glory.” Enough said.

51-IOj-3u+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_How Dante Can Save Your Lifeby Rod Dreher

Ever wonder if reading a nearly 800 year old poem could actually save your life? Well, that’s exactly what happened to columnist Rod Dreher. Dreher’s book not only tells the story of how reading Dante’s epic Divine Comedy helped him reorient his life at a time of crisis; it also serves as a kind of summary of why Dante’s poem is so powerful and revelatory. This book is especially for you if you delight in stories of how fiction and narrative can move the soul in unexpected, and Godward, ways. Highly recommended.

 

Leave a comment and let me know what your favorite books of the year are!