Proud

I’m grateful that my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, overwhelmingly passed a resolution at their annual meeting today condemning the white supremacy of the so-called “alt-right” movement. This was the right resolution at the right time for the right reasons, and it was the right decision to pass it. The resolutions committee’s decision not to take action on it last night created a storm of controversy. I’m glad it did, but it would be a mistake to singularly focus on the delay. The point is that Southern Baptists have made it explicit where they stand when it comes to the resurgent racism of a nativist, faux-conservative, viciously hateful group.

I’m sure there are people reading this who think my denomination doesn’t deserve laud here. After all, do you really get credit as a traditional evangelical body for saying that people who sling the most vile slurs and employ disgusting rhetorical tactics should be rebuked? Of course, in a sense, nobody deserves credit for that. It should be self-evident. But if the history of the Southern Baptist Convention teaches anything, it’s that people who are right about the deity of Christ can nonetheless be totally, abjectly wrong about the humanity of those with different skin. The point is not that Southern Baptists are great people for denouncing the alt-right. The point is that, for a denomination whose very founding was bound up in theological justifications for the destruction of other human beings, the real gospel–the gospel of the “one new man,” who wasn’t white and didn’t die to found a white church–that gospel has not been utterly lost.

For that, I give thanks.

photo via Craig Garrett

Bernie Sanders, Christianity, and the “Price” of Citizenship

Read this David French write-up of an appalling episode today between senator Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought (seeking to be confirmed as Deputy Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget). Sanders’ grilling of Vought’s theology is distasteful, yes, but it is also borderline unconstitutional, since the clear implication of Sanders’ conclusion is that Vought’s religious views disqualify him from the office.

So what gives? I can think of 3 possibilities as to why Senator Sanders would do this:

  1. The senator genuinely doesn’t know or understand that Christians believe that those who aren’t Christians are, at least in some meaningful sense, “condemned” because they lack faith in Jesus Christ. It could be that senator Sanders honestly has no idea this theology even exists, and assumed that Vought’s sentiments were extreme, fringe, and bigoted.
  2. Senator Sanders does understand what Vought means, but he believes this theology is genuinely dangerous to pluralism and tolerance, and that those who believe in it are, by extension, threats to the social order.
  3. Senator Sanders understands the theology, and doesn’t really see such religious belief as inherently dangerous to the public. He does, however, believe that secularism, not religion, is the “fair” and “neutral” position, and that it’s best for everybody if those with political power do not take their religious beliefs with them into the public square. Laying personal theology aside is, Sanders reasons, the cost of citizenship.

Looking over those possibilities, I think:

  • If scenario #1 is true, then that means the Democratic party nearly nominated a man for the presidency who doesn’t understand the most basic meaning of the country’s majority religion–and, perhaps even worse, despite years in public service, he has never bothered to figure it out.
  • If scenario #2 is the case, then we have to admit that a senior senator in the US’s most important legislative body, and a presidential contender with a national political party, sincerely believes that orthodox religion is incompatible with American democracy, and certainly incompatible with leadership of said democracy.
  • If scenario #3 is true, then the implication is that senator Sanders, and perhaps some of his colleagues, believe that secularism is an appropriate, and the only appropriate, public religion.

I’m not sure which scenario I believe. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t really matter which one is true, because in the end, they all mean the same thing. They all mean that a candidate for public office was openly asked to relinquish the unanimous teaching of his 2,000-year old faith in order to serve the American republic. They all mean that an elected official ridiculed and questioned the patriotism of orthodox Christian teaching, and did so likely knowing he could count on impunity from his colleagues and his constituency. They all mean the pitting of basic religious conviction against citizenship.

Look, I’m not trying to be melodramatic. I’m not trying to scream persecution, and I’m not even trying to score a partisan point. But this episode matters, and it matters not only because of where and how it happened, but also because there are sizable numbers of people who insist day by day that this kind of ideological pressure cooking just isn’t happening. “That’s just silly,” they say, when presented with new evidence of focused attacks on religious liberty. “Christianity is a majority religion. You have privilege on top of privilege. You’re just mad you have to share with somebody else now.”

Sorry, but when nuns are sued to sell contraceptives, and when nominees for public office are interrogated in confirmation hearings about whether they actually believe in their religion–that’s not just “sharing” privilege.

One more thing. I happen to know quite a few friends and peers who are both Christian and fans/supporters of Bernie Sanders. Here’s my challenge to you: Say something about this. Don’t let it fly just because you like the idea of free community college, or because you’ve seen through the whole “GOP=Christianity” facade. Capitalism is not orthodoxy. I get it. But if your partiality for economic redistribution means you’re OK with religious tests being applied for public officials who have the misfortune of their convictions, you’ve simply repeated the mistake of your Moral Majority ancestors, only on behalf of a different tribe.

The Death of Expertise

Remember that famous scene in Peter Weir’s “Dead Poets Society,” in which professor Keating (played by Robin Williams) orders his English literature students to tear out the introductory pages of their poetry textbook? Those pages, Keating explains, are the soulless pontifications of a scholar trying to explain verse. Nonsense, says Keating. Poetry isn’t what some expert says it is. It’s about “sucking the marrow out of life,” about spontaneous utterances of the subconscious and chasing your dreams and sticking it to your parents and headmaster. Forget the experts, boys; carpe diem!

As a misguided defense of the humanities, “Dead Poets Society” is easy enough to dismiss. The bigger problem is that Keating’s heedless disregard for truth and knowledge is a pretty accurate picture of how many Americans think and live. That’s the contention of Tom Nichols in his new book “The Death of Expertise,” a brief yet persuasive work that laments our generation’s factual free-for-all.

Americans, Nichols believes, are not just subsisting on a low amount of general knowledge. That wouldn’t exactly be a new development. Rather, Nichols is disturbed by the “emergence of a positive hostility” to established, credentialed, and professional knowledge, one that “represents the aggressive replacement of expert views or established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other.”

According to Nichols, what White House press secretaries might call “alternative facts” have become common cultural currency. If love means never having to say you’re sorry, the Internet means never having to say you’re wrong.

For many people, a first-person blog post is (at least) as authoritative as a peer-reviewed study, and a Facebook link offers truth too hot for professional journalists and fact checkers to handle. This ethos doesn’t just promulgate wrong information, which would be bad enough. Nichols argues that, even worse, it fosters a deep distrust and cynicism toward established knowledge and credentialed communities.

Nichols’s book puts the symptoms of the death of expertise on a spectrum. Some effects are clearly more harmful than others. It’s no revelation that “low-information voters” feel as vehement as ever about a plethora of fictitious things. More worrisome, however, is the growing public comfort with dangerous conspiracy theories. Both of these trends owe much to the “University of Google” (to borrow one celebrity’s self-proclaimed credentials for rejecting vaccinations). With so much access to so much information available to so many people, the web has seriously undermined the responsible dissemination of verified facts and blurred the distinction between truth and talking point. Nichols writes:

The internet lets a billion flowers bloom and most of them stink, including everything from the idle thoughts of random bloggers and the conspiracy theories of cranks all the way to the sophisticated campaigns of disinformation conducted by groups and governments. Some of the information on the Internet is wrong because of sloppiness, some of it is wrong because well-meaning people just don’t know any better, and some of it is wrong because it was put there out of greed or even sheer malice. The medium itself, without comment or editorial intervention, displays it all with equal speed. The internet is a vessel, not a referee.

Nichols doesn’t lay all the blame on the internet. Higher education has contributed to the death of expertise, Nichols writes, both by churning out poor thinkers from its ranks and by defining education itself down to mean little more than payment in exchange for a degree. “When everyone has attended a university,” Nichols observes, “it gets that much more difficult to sort out actual achievement and expertise among all those ‘university graduates.’” Similarly, public trust in professional journalism has been harmed by incompetence on one end and clickbait on the other. All of this, Nichols argues, combines to foster an instinctive cynicism toward expertise and established knowledge. When experts get it wrong, well, of course they did; when they get it right, there’s probably more to the story.

One issue that seems relevant here, and one that Nichols lamentably doesn’t really parse, is the triumph of subjective narrative over objective arguments. Americans have always loved a good story, but what seems unique about our time is the way that story and first person narrative have assumed an authoritative role in culture, often to the contradiction and exclusion of factual debate. Instead of trading in truth claims, many simply trade in anecdotes, and shape their worldview strictly in line with experiences and felt needs.

The privileging of story over knowledge is a glaring feature, for example, of much contemporary religion. While real theological literacy is alarmingly rare, what are far more common are self-actualizing narratives of experience. These authoritative narratives take all kinds of forms—they’re the diaries of the “spiritual but not religious” Oprah denizens, and they’re also the cottage industry of “ex-[insert denomination/church name]” watchdog bloggers. In both cases, when jolting stories about the problems of the religious expert class collide with more established doctrine or practices, the tales triumph.

What’s more, young evangelicals in particular seem more likely to get their theological and spiritual formation outside the purview of pastors, churches, and seminaries (a triad that could be considered representative of a religious “expert” class). Blogs, podcasts, and TED Talks seem to offer many American Christians a spiritual life more attractive than the one lived in institutions like the local church and seminary. Indeed, a casual disregard for formal theological education seems to be a common marker amongst many young, progressive evangelicals, several of whom enjoy publishing platforms and high website traffic despite their near total lack of supervised training. An Master of Divinity may be nice, but a punchy blog and a healthy Twitter following is even better (you don’t have to think long or hard before you see this dynamic’s potential for heterodoxy).

Perhaps we ought to consider this the “Yelp” effect on American culture. In an economy of endless choices, “user reviews” are often the first and most important resource that many of us consult in making decisions. Putting trust in the aggregated consensus of the crowd is likely more endemic in our daily experiences than we think. It’s how we decide where to have dinner, which car to buy, what insurance company to rely on–and, increasingly, whether or not to inoculate our children, and which interpretation of the New Testament to accept. When the self-reported experiences of our peers are just a couple clicks away, and our first instinct toward expertise and credentialed wisdom is suspicion of bias and elitism, it’s not hard to see how we got here.

So what’s the solution? Unfortunately, Nichols’s book doesn’t offer many answers for the death of expertise. This is somewhat understandable; there are only so many different ways to say “epistemic humility,” after all. There is obvious need for self-awareness, both among laypeople and among the expert class. As Nichols notes, credentialed experts should “stay in their lane,” not risking credibility in order to appear omni-competent. Likewise, readers should acknowledge the inherent value in professional training and the processes of verification and review. While these things do not make expertise infallible, they do make expertise more reliable than sheer intuition.

But in order for this epistemic humility to take place, something else needs to happen first, and that is the re-cultivation of trust. Trust has fallen on hard times. Mutual trust in the public square is increasingly rare. In many cases, good faith dialogue and hearty debate have been exchanged for competing “righteous minds” that suspect the worst of ideological opponents. The “death of expertise” is, in an important sense, the death of trust—the death of trust in our public square, the death of trust in our institutions and cultural touchstones, and even the death of trust in each other.

Believing in the inherent value of experts requires us to accept fallen human nature in its limitations. It requires us to to admit that individuals with a laptop and a curious mind are limited, and that “limited” does not here mean “stupid.” The value of experts—whether professors, doctors, theologians, architects, or, gasp, even government officials–is value that we see when we accept that time and training and accountability and certification are helpful precisely because they impose a control on individual passions and abilities. The fact that not everyone is an expert is a good thing, because human flourishing is not when, as the joke goes, “everybody is above average,” but when people learn from each other in striving for the common good.

Expertise is not an infallible panacea. Nor is it a politically motivated trap. It is the natural consequence of being made in the image of a knowing God, who gives gifts and graces to each, for the good of all. Humility to sit under this kingdom economy is the key to resurrecting a culture of trust—and with it, a flourishing, mutually beneficial age of experts.

Thoughts on Christian Publishing

On Twitter, Jared Wilson flagged this list of the bestselling Christian books of 2016. I’ve seen previous iterations of this list, and each one that I’ve seen looks frighteningly alike. The gentlest way to say it: the Christian publishing industry is utterly dominated by therapeutic self-help literature. What’s more, the sheer amount of non-literature on the list is staggering; adult coloring books and joke books are all over the top 20, and “Jesus Calling” appears nine times in the top 100, thanks to various editions.

Now it’s always easy to overreact to this kind of thing. The reality is that times are hard for serious, substantial writing, whether Christian or not. Social media technology’s assault on concentration and thoughtfulness does not discriminate on the basis of religion. And the list isn’t all bad; there are plenty of good writers and good books on it.

What I’m more interested in though is the gap between this list of bestselling Christian books, and the evangelical online writing economy. Put simply, the contrast between the work that outsells all other work in Christian bookstores and the work that drives traffic and conversation in the evangelical blogosphere is astonishing. The two worlds look nothing alike. When was the last time you saw an article on your social media written in the first person voice of Jesus, assuring readers of prosperity and emotional centeredness? Have you ever seen a viral relaxation exercise from Desiring God, Tim Challies, Focus on the Family, or even Patheos for that matter?

Sure, there’s some silliness out there. Yes, the lows of evangelical blogging can be really, really low (you’d be better off with a coloring book than some sites I know of). But as I think about it, it just seems to me that even the ridiculousness of evangelical blogosphere is almost always ridiculousness you have to think about. Can the same be said about many bestselling Christian books?

As I look out on the confessional evangelical writing scene, I see a lot of good, even in places where I’d find much to disagree with. There is quite a bit of thoughtful, meaningful commentary out there right now. So when I see a list like this, I can’t help but wonder: Where’s the disconnect? Why am I seeing such a stark difference between the content I inhabit on a daily basis and the content that the average Christian is consuming at bestselling rates? I don’t have an answer for that.

There are a few things I do know:

  • The space right now for creative Christian writers is enormous. There is a real material need in American Christian culture for literary talent. We can’t talk to teenage and twentysomething believers about using their gifts for the good of the body of Christ and only point them toward vocational ministry or the mission field. Christian art matters (it always has), and it requires Christian artists. They won’t grow out of the ground; they have to be cultivated, encouraged, identified, and supported.
  • The impulse in Christian literary circles to divide “theology” from “Christian living” is a terrible rip off. It results in verbose, stiff, academic theology, and shallow bubblegum devotional lit. The sad fact is that some of the best evangelical theology is being produced by people who can’t write, in books that will never be read, all because somewhere down the line we Reformed evangelical types decided the humanities were not relevant in training theologians. Adult coloring books are that mentality’s harvest. This has to be reversed, and it has to be reversed by people who can think deep thoughts about God AND say them in beautifully arresting way.
  • You get what you pay for. These trends in Christian publishing aren’t going to be thwarted by moaning bloggers like me. They’re going to be thwarted by churchgoers who use their income to purchase good books by good writers. And for that to happen, those who are already reading good books by good writers have to tell others about them–including pastors.

I actually believe Christian publishing is primed for a sustained season of excellence, for reasons already mentioned above. But perhaps the biggest obstacle in the way of such a season is the church’s own passivity. For years many evangelical churches labored under the illusion that spiritualized entertainment was going to rebuild American Christianity and fill the pews. It turns out though that not even the church can out-distract Buzzfeed and Facebook. So what now? Maybe we should give the whole teaching thing another go round.

My Favorite Articles and Blogs From 2015

Last week I did a run down of my favorite book reads from 2015. Below is a brief list of my favorite blogs, articles, and reviews from the year. As with the book list, there is no hierarchy or ranking here.

“There Is No Pro-Life Case for Planned Parenthood,” by Ross Douthat in The New York Times.

But to concede that pro-lifers might be somewhat right to be troubled by abortion, to shudder along with us just a little bit at the crushing of the unborn human body, and then turn around and still demand the funding of an institution that actually does the quease-inducing killing on the grounds that what’s being funded will help stop that organization from having to crush quite so often, kill quite so prolifically – no, spare me. Spare me. Tell the allegedly “pro-life” institution you support to set down the forceps, put away the vacuum, and then we’ll talk about what kind of family planning programs deserve funding. But don’t bring your worldview’s bloody hands to me and demand my dollars to pay for soap enough to maybe wash a few flecks off.

“The Beauty of the Cross: 19 Objections and Answers on Penal Substitutionary Atonement,” by Derek Rishmawy.

As I said before, though it is not the only work Christ does on the cross, his sin-bearing representation is at the heart of the gospel. While we need to be careful about using it as a political tool to establish Christian orthodoxy, the issues at stake make it worth defending with grace and care. The justification of God’s righteousness in the face of evil, the graciousness of grace, the finality and assurance of forgiveness, the costliness of God’s love, and the mercy of God’s kingdom are all caught up in properly understanding the cross of Christ.

“The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Atlantic.

Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’sThe Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.

“How Not to Read the Bible If You Want to Remain a Christian,” by Collin Garbarino in First Things

But Crossan’s central idea is not amusing; it’s disingenuous. He talks about finding the “heartbeat” of the Bible, but he’s interested in no such thing. Instead of honestly trying to understand how love and wrath can both find their source in a holy God, Crossan seeks to tear God in two. The violence of God must be dismissed as Crossan looks for the nonviolence of God. Crossan says that he’s looking for the diastole and the systole of the Bible’s cardiac cycle, but he isn’t. He’s actually trying to have one without the other. Any heart that only has one and not both will die. In the same way, the heavily edited Jesus of Crossan’s imagination is not the living Christ, and the faith that Crossan offers is a dead one.

“The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic.

Watching footage of that meeting, a fundamental disagreement is revealed between professor and undergrads. Christakis believes that he has an obligation to listen to the views of the students, to reflect upon them, and to either respond that he is persuaded or to articulate why he has a different view. Put another way, he believes that one respects students by engaging them in earnest dialogue. But many of the students believe that his responsibility is to hear their demands for an apology and to issue it. They see anything short of a confession of wrongdoing as unacceptable. In their view, one respects students by validating their subjective feelings.

Notice that the student position allows no room for civil disagreement.

“Slouching Toward Mecca,” by Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books.

Given all this, it will take a long time for the French to read and appreciate Soumissionfor the strange and surprising thing that it is. Michel Houellebecq has created a new genre—the dystopian conversion tale. Soumission is not the story some expected of a coup d’état, and no one in it expresses hatred or even contempt of Muslims. It is about a man and a country who through indifference and exhaustion find themselves slouching toward Mecca. There is not even drama here—no clash of spiritual armies, no martyrdom, no final conflagration. Stuff just happens, as in all Houellebecq’s fiction. All one hears at the end is a bone-chilling sigh of collective relief. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. Whatever.

“The Serial Swatter,” by Jason Fagone in The New York Times

Early one weekend morning in January 2014, Janet was sleeping fitfully in her parents’ home in Toronto. A junior studying elementary education at a nearby college, she had gone home for the weekend in a state of nervous collapse. For months, someone going by the name ‘‘Obnoxious’’ had been harassing her online. He had called her cellphone repeatedly and sent her threatening texts. Worst of all, he had threatened to ‘‘swat’’ her at school — to make a false emergency call to the police and lure a SWAT team to her door.

“What ISIS Really Wants,” by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic.

That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

Theological Triage and the Doctrine of Creation,” by Samuel Emadi in The Gospel Coalition.

Theological triage is not a way of minimizing doctrine but of being able to say all doctrine is important, though some doctrines are more important than others. Lose the Trinity and you lose the gospel. Lose your favored millennial position and, while you may need a little reshuffling of some exegetical commitments, most of the rest of your theological system remains safely intact. To be clear, I’m not saying the earth’s age or the length of the days in Genesis 1 is unimportant or that we shouldn’t have convictions on these matters (just to prove it, I’ll tip my hand and reveal I’m a fairly committed literal six-day, young earther). I am saying we need to separate first-order issues in the doctrine of creation from second- and third-order issues, mitigating our suspicions of the other side and hopefully reminding those with teaching ministries what to prioritize about creation as we disciple others. In other words, this isn’t just about learning where we can disagree; it’s also about shoring up our defenses on the non-negotiables.

“C.S. Lewis Was a Secret Government Agent,” by Harry Lee Poe in Christianity Today.

How Lewis came to be recruited and by whom remains a secret. The records of the Secret Intelligence Service, known popularly as MI6, remain closed. Perhaps one of his former pupils at Oxford recommended him for his mission. It was an unusual mission for which few people were suited. J. R. R. Tolkien had the knowledge base for the job, even beyond that of Lewis, but Tolkien lacked other skills that Lewis possessed. Perhaps someone had heard Lewis lecture on his favorite subject in one of the two great lecture halls in the Examination Schools building of Oxford University. At a time when Oxford fellows were notorious for the poor quality of their public lectures, Lewis packed the hall with an audience of students who were not required to attend lectures. In the 1930s, Lewis was the best show in town. Somehow Lewis had developed the skill to speak to an audience and hold them in rapt attention, in spite of his academic training rather than because of it.

How to Surrender the Earth to Thugs

In 1994, Michael Novak delivered an acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize entitled “Awakening From Nihilism.” Novak warned that the oppressive regimes of the 20th century relied greatly on cultural vacuums where transcendent values and religious beliefs had ceased to exist. The value-neutral nihilism peddled by many Western universities was, Novak observed, a breeding ground for totalitarianism and worship of the state.

For [relativists], it is certain that there is no truth, only opinion: my opinion, your opinion. They abandon the defense of intellect. There being no purchase of intellect upon reality, nothing else is left but preference, and will is everything. They retreat to the romance of will.

But this is to give to Mussolini and Hitler, posthumously and casually, what they could not vindicate by the most willful force of arms. It is to miss the first great lesson rescued from the ashes of World War II: Those who surrender the domain of intellect make straight the road of fascism. Totalitarianism, as Mussolini defined it, is la feroce volanta . It is the will-to-power, unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs.

The “romance of the will” is the liturgy of individual autonomy and sexual nothingness. It is the spiritual void created when a society believes it can merely create its own meaning by an act of fiat. Leaving the realm of the absolute, the transcendent, and the supernatural does not free a culture from its lessons; it merely creates a job opening for those who demand to be worshipped as gods themselves.

In Europe, ISIS gains converts and recruits. How could a militant, murderous regime gain followers out of the eminently secular, eminently fashionable ranks of the modern West? Perhaps one answer is that Europe’s secular age has failed to answer the questions it insisted it would. A fragmented, irrelevant Christianity was supposed to open the doors to a joyous, thoroughly self-fulfilled consciousness of individual freedom and intellectual vigor. But it appears in 2015 that it has only resulted in a nihilistic embrace of suicide, either for the cause of Mohammed or for the alleviation of boredom.

Here in the US, revolts across university campuses express the indigestion that inevitably follows an intellectual diet of relativism and materialism. Students are dissatisfied with a university culture that displays contempt for tradition, except that tradition that flatters and profits the schools themselves. Long having abandoned any pretense of teaching moral reasoning or character formation, American halls of higher education find themselves powerless to articulate why social media should not dictate their very existences. The classroom has been surrendered to the activist.

You see what happens? The allure of secularism is the promise of a future without the intellectual and emotional boundaries that religion enables. A mind freed from the chains of anachronism is supposed to also be free from the dictates of tyranny. But that is not so. For what we see today is that secularism is not the end of religion but merely an open invitation to the will to power. Whether it be the promise of paradise through jihad, or the promise of equality through activism and intolerance, the human soul will not rest at secularism as a destination, but will pass by it, looking for more solid ground.

Being Christian In an Age of Fear

We live in a fearful age, and Christians are not exempt.

Are we living in a generation of fear? It’s not as simple a question as it might seem. It requires digging underneath the seemingly endless sediment of distraction and medication that frees millions of Americans every day from the task of reflection. Fear, like love, is usually only identified by its extreme manifestations, those things which we call “paranoia.” Yet for many people there seems to be an undercurrent of dread beneath their daily lives. And it could be that this dread is choking out the possibility of authentic empathy and self-understanding.

Consider the reflections of Mark Shiffman in his piece on college students and the humanities. Study of humanities has declined, Shiffman writes, in large part because students enter college driven by fear that they will leave unprepared for long term economic success. Even the students that do enroll in philosophy, literature, art or history do so almost apologetically, with an air of anxiety about the possible long-term consequences of spending (or borrowing) money on such an education. It’s not the desire for jobs that Shiffman laments, but the fear-driven, parent-constructed rituals that students go through in order to gain a rigid control of the future. Many of Shiffman’s students are scared to stop and ask themselves the big questions of life (which is the great contribution of the humanities to education), since doing so might mean falling behind in “the real world.” The students, conditioned since elementary school to do more and be more for the sake of a resume or permanent record, are frightened by their own inner lives:

When the kid at the next desk might out-­compete me, edging me out of the path to economic security, then the hope that we may prevail together gives way to the fear that I will be the one who fails. When the specter of shrinking prosperity increases competition for scarce opportunities and engenders doubt that I will do as well as my parents, that fear intensifies. At the same time, we hear of vague, unpredictable threats—global warming, economic volatilities, the terrorism that has turned airports and government buildings into places almost entirely organized around our attempt to forestall disaster. Our fear has become a pathological condition, a desperate need to bring the future under control. And we seek therapy from colleges and universities, the therapy of cumulative achievement along clearly marked pathways to success.

Fear has a tendency to crowd out reflection and real personal growth. It can create an obsession about the subjunctive and a preoccupation with the future that undermines the emotional and spiritual stability necessary to form habits of healthy thinking. And it doesn’t always have to be individualistic. Take as one example the trend of “helicopter parenting,” wherein adults make sure that every aspect of a child’s day is under close surveillance and control. In this case, the parents’ fear of danger plays a part in depriving a child of the development of physical and emotional maturity that comes through experiences shared with peers. The fear is understandable, but it is also exacerbated by Amber alerts and bestselling kidnapping memoirs.

Indeed, in our cultural exchange, fear is often its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Conspiracy theories are appealing because of their preemptive disqualification of rebuttals (“Of course that’s what the experts say, because they’re in on it!”) and the sense of control and understanding that they bring their adherents. There are extreme examples of this that are out of the mainstream, but many regular people fall prey to the cultural climate that creates them. David Brooks, contemplating the most ridiculous responses to Ebola, suggests that many people look to theories of mass collusion for vindication for their feelings of isolation and insignificance. Fear can feel empowering when it identifies the enemy.

That last point is a salient one for conservative Christians. Great cultural and political change in the country seems poised to throw traditionalist believers off the ledge of societal relevance they sidle right now. This can create understandable feelings of dread and hostility towards “mass media” or even unbelievers. Even if the culture war is indeed lost—though I’m not wholly convinced that’s true—there are still codes of honor that govern how Christians engage the city of man. Allowing fear, even fear that materializes, to drive our strategy in the coming years is not only a recipe for further defeat, it is flatly against the basic doctrines of faith, divine sovereignty, and promise of perpetual good for those who love the Lord.

Assuming a faithful posture in the face of fear is critical for Christian witness. Speaking into a culture that is without Christ is to speak to millions who operate their daily lives without any transcendent hope of good. Most people truly believe that they alone are worthy of their trust, and that the world and its ultimate fate is entirely up to culture. Into this despair the Gospel brings good news of forgiveness, reconciliation, resurrection and the redemption of all things. There simply is no better word to speak into the age of fear than the story of Jesus.
Yet it is not enough that this is said. It must be lived in vibrant community that fleshes it out.

Going back lastly to Shiffman’s essay, I think Christians involved in the discipline of cultural engagement have something in common with those fearful students. Many of us were, I think, sold a bill of goods describing what was necessary to persuade the unbelieving culture. Perhaps it was something like theology + winsomeness = persuasion? Likewise Shiffman’s students entered college convinced that if they continued the blueprint for economic stability, they could be guaranteed success. What they didn’t know was that success is more than a salary. Evangelicals should take a lesson from the students and remind themselves that there is no measure of cultural success outside simple faithfulness to Christ. Overcoming fear–of cultural marginalization and the loss of public prestige–is necessary if we are going to boldly announce our God and his kingdom.