5 Things I Learned As a Pastor’s Kid

  1. Pastors are people too! They’re not impersonal authority forces or theological amoebas. Pastors aren’t super-Christians; they need encouragement, rest, and recreation like everyone else.**
  2. A childhood filled with church attendance isn’t an immunization against sin and unbelief. But neither does requiring such attendance automatically turn kids into resentful prodigals. I’ve encountered an awful lot of people who get these two wrong.
  3. The most freeing thing a PK can feel is that his Dad and Mom don’t view him as a PK.
  4. PKs don’t need to see and know everything about the church that Dad sees and knows. This is one thing that my Dad has said he wished he’d done differently with me and my siblings. Seasoned saints are more equipped to handle the frustrating parts of church government, business, or discipline than teens are. You can’t hit a button and make your child resent the local church, but you can overwhelm with its blemishes before he is able to see the beauty.
  5. PKs need Dads who aren’t just theology nerds. I don’t know if I can remember even 3 of my Dad’s sermons growing up, but I can remember dozens of chats over milkshakes and trips to ball games. One of my fondest memories is watching an incredible Super Bowl alone with my Dad in a hotel somewhere in Indiana while the blizzard of the decade pummeled us outside. The conference we attended later was fine, but I don’t remember most of it. I remember that night with my Dad perfectly.

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**If your church doesn’t have a sabbatical policy for its pastor, for the sake of his wife and kids, start one ASAP. 

The Phone and His Boy

Andrew Sullivan’s latest essay in New York Magazine is one of the essential pieces of reading I’ve come across so far this year. Partly, I suppose, because it is the essay that I’ve been trying and failing to write for the past year. The title according to the URL slug of the article is “How Technology Almost Killed Me,” and the headline chosen by the magazine to appear in social media shares is “My Distraction Sickness–And Yours.” But the headline I personally love is the one that appears directly on the page:

“I Used To Be a Human Being.”

This is the essence of Sullivan’s essay. What if our endlessly connected lives, empowered by mobile technology and sustained by an ever-demanding social media age, are actually making us less like the people we are created to be?

As Sullivan reminds us, he spent more than a decade professional enmeshed in the online world. At its height, Andrew’s blog was updated at least a dozen times per day, often with nothing more than links and summaries of what he and his team found around the web. It was lucrative business, but it came at a cost. Sullivan’s physical, mental, and emotional health eventually spiraled downward, culminating in his announcement two years ago that he was leaving the blogosphere for good.

All that to say: When a man whose online presence has earned him money and reputation tells you that digital addiction is a major threat, you should probably listen.

Here’s an excerpt, but I cannot urge you enough to read the entire piece:

…as I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves.

And what a constant diet of “shadows” does is spread our emotions and attention so thin over our lives that we lose the ability to connect deeply with the biggest moments, the most fundamental truths, and the most important relationships. Everything becomes digitized so that life itself is defined down. We are never fully here because we are never fully anywhere; our thoughts are continually spliced up between the earth and the ether.

I’ve seen this play out in my own life. My iPhone offers the security and comfort of never having a bored moment. Twitter means I’m never more than 140 characters away from letting peers know I still matter (virtue-signaling, anyone?). The constant, agonizing pull to grab my phone in any moment of stillness or quietude is a daily experience. The temptation to keep checking notifications or blog stats, sometimes doing nothing more than refreshing the page or switching between tabs for an hour, is a daily experience.

And I’ve felt the consequences: Reading is harder for me because I can only go a few pages without needing something newly stimulating, and writing is even worse. I’ve found it more difficult than ever to meditate on Scripture for more than a couple minutes, or to immerse in focused prayer. Several times over the past year I’ve come home and told Emily that, despite my “output,” I still feel like the day has been wasted–or rather, that the day has evaporated like steam, while my back was turned for a few minutes.

Should I dismiss this struggle as an unavoidable feature of life in the information economy? Should I chalk up my hitting the wall in prayer and meditation to a lack of spiritual delight? It’s possible, of course. But I don’t think so. I think it’s more likely that while many evangelicals have been running around proclaiming that technology is morally neutral–“it’s just how you use it”–the “neutral” technology has been shaping me and many others in ways that make it harder to pursue faithfulness.

One last thought: I’ve been seeing many people respond to Sullivan’s essay with frustration that he doesn’t seem aware of how closely tied many people’s jobs are with online connectivity. Some have criticized the piece for idealizing a sort of seamless transition from online life to disconnected solitude, when an increasing number of people in Western culture pay their bills through jobs centered around the internet.

As someone who has one of those jobs, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this critique. It’s true that many people have careers that wouldn’t tolerate a total retreat to online monkishness. I haven’t the foggiest idea how that truth is somehow incompatible with Sullivan’s warning sign. For every person who is online 24/7 to support themselves or their families, there are at least 50 others who are online that much and have no idea why. If you feel like you can’t make a dent in your online life without endangering yourself or loved ones, God has grace for your situation. If, on the other hand, you feel like you can’t make a dent in your online life without exposing yourself to the frictions and foibles of flesh-and-blood reality, let me encourage you: I think it’s worth it.

Lust, Lies, and Laziness

Today I have a new piece at Boundless.org, entitled “How Pornography Kills Ambition.” I suppose I sound like a broken record when I say this, but it just can’t be said enough: Online pornography destroys the self. And one of the ways it does this is by collapsing personality into secretive voyeurism.

Here’s an excerpt:

In a letter to an American reader, C.S. Lewis once wrote the danger of self-oriented lust is that it “sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides … Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself.”

Pornography thus kills holy ambition by killing love. Love, expressed through marriage and faithful sexual intimacy, is a gift from God that’s meant to pull us out from ourselves toward one another. But pornography aims the mind and heart back at oneself. By collapsing into ourselves, we in turn become less and less like what we are created to be.

Read the whole piece here.

Some Thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy”

I bought J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy just days before my son came into the world, so it’s taken longer than typical for me to finish the book. But the effort was richly rewarded. “Elegy” is an unusually absorbing memoir, particularly when you consider that its author writes nothing more spectacular about his life than getting accepted into Yale Law school. What makes “Elegy” a poignant read is, I believe, the fact that so much of Vance’s childhood and teenage life is an experience of America that is buried beyond recall for most people in this country. It’s not just that most Americans have no conception of the poverty, cultural dissipation, or disenchantment of rural whites; it’s that, as Vance shows without arguing, this ritual of life on the fringe is left almost entirely untouched by politicians or cultural critics. These people are literally invisible to the American consciousness.

Much of that invisibility is self-inflicted, of course. That is part of the central tension of Vance’s book: How do you legislate help for the kind of person who absolutely would not help himself? There are two heroes of the book, Mamaw and the Marines, and without them Vance freely admits that his life likely would have become another stagnant existence, riddled with substance abuse and apathy. But my takeaway from Vance’s story is that the gap that both Mamaw and the Marines filled in his life was not a gap that an anti-poverty agenda can fill, nor even one that access to better education, lower taxes, or more upwardly mobile jobs could.

What Mamaw and the Marines did for Vance, I think, was give him parents. An aloof biological father, a drug-addicted mother, and a revolving door of variably disinterested stepdads meant that Vance’s life was anchored into jello; there was no constance or pattern of consistent love and protection that solidified a sense of hope or duty in a young boy.

I hope to expand these thoughts in an upcoming essay. For now, let me just remark on a few things that Hillbilly Elegy reinforced for me:

  1. The cost of the sexual revolution’s disintegration of the family will always be higher for the poor.
  2. Addiction–to heroin, prescription medication, or even pornography and TV for that matter–is a cultural epidemic that far too few are willing to look in the eye– partially, I suspect, because of the politically palatable rhetoric of disease and victimhood that surrounds it.
  3. Place matters. Upward mobility means little if people displace themselves from relational networks that can support and care for them.
  4. National politics, either of Left or Right, mean very little to a large group of Americans in this country. Very large.
  5. It’s quite possible that evangelicalism’s focus on renewing the urban city has come at the expense of rural Christians and non-Christians, many of whom are left with either a vacuous Bible-belt religion or else open unbelief. There are more atheists in Owsley County, Kentucky, than we think.
  6. There is no way to replicate the parent-child relationship. Saving graces can intervene (see what I said above), but any desire of cultural elites to go “post-parent” is foolhardy.

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(image credit)

Quote of the Day

“This is a wonderful country, and I think everybody agrees on that. There are things that in our country that can improve, and I don’t think that by acknowledging as a white male that America isn’t the same for me maybe as it is for everybody, the same great place, that we’re complicit in the problem or that we’re saying America isn’t a great place. If we’re saying there are incidents of oppression, systematically or individually, in this country, I don’t think saying, ‘Well in Country X, Y or Z it’s 10 times worse,’ is making things any better. I think that may be true, but why can’t we improve?

“I play in a league that’s 70 percent black, and my peers, guys that I come to work with, guys that I respect, who are very socially aware, intellectual guys, if they identify something that they think is worth putting their reputations on the line [for], creating controversy, I’m going to listen to those guys. And I respect the anthem, I would never kneel for it, and we all come from different walks of life, and we think differently about the anthem and the flag and what that means. But I think you can respect and find a lot of truth in what these guys are talking about and not kneel. Those aren’t mutually exclusive ideas.”

-Patriots defensive end Chris Long, giving what I think is the most balanced and helpful perspective on the national anthem protests that I’ve seen yet.

“You Should Write a Book!”

A couple days ago I got a question again that I’m starting to get fairly regularly:

“When are you going to write a book?”

The first time I was ever asked seriously about writing a book, I thought I would faint from flattery. I couldn’t imagine a bigger compliment. I probably mumbled something in false self-effacement, then spent the rest of the afternoon daydreaming about what kind of signature would be best for book signings. For me, that simple question was a validation–more than a query, it was an assertion that my talent and my work deserve the honor of being bound and sold in bulk.

The question felt great at first. But eventually something changed. What had sounded like the ultimate “You the man!” started sounding like the knowing inquiry of an accountability partner. As I was asked more and more about writing a book, I came to intensely dread that conversation.

Why? Simple reason: I know I can’t write a book right now, and admitting that is, in the presence of my particular friends and in my particular line of work, a humiliation.

I have friends and coworkers who are my age or younger, who have published multiple books. Just today I saw a Facebook friend announce his 2nd or third published work. My social media feeds could double as newsletters for writing friends, several of whom seem to be on the fast track to the bestseller list. It’s quite honestly difficult to name peers who aren’t either publishing now or getting ready to publish. This issue is a tender one for me, one I have to fight insecurity about almost every day.

I’m glad for these friends. I rejoice in their work and their reach. Their success is a joy. But whatever it is in my friends that has clicked and borne literary fruit, hasn’t clicked in me. When I say I can’t write a book right now, I’m not being facetious or falsely modest. I can’t write a book right now because I know for an objective fact that I have nothing to say worthy of a publisher.

It’s just where I am. I wish I could pivot from this reflection to an argument against the hyper-inflated market of young evangelical authors (there is definitely one to be made). Or, I wish I could justify my own feebleness with some grandiose thoughts on what it means to publish, to have a platform, and why evangelicalism will almost certainly suffer from its not-very-discriminate platform-building culture (I believe it will). All of that is true, and I believe all of it. But that’s not what’s really stopping me from trying to get a book deal. What’s stopping me is the question, “What would I say?”

I don’t have an answer to that question right now. I don’t even know when I will. But I do know that, for me, unless in the future I jettison completely something I believe very strongly about the relationship between people and truth, I won’t ever try to write a book unless I can answer that question.

Contrary to what bibliophiles like me say, there aren’t actually that many good books out there. There are a few, and they are diamonds. But there is an ocean of bad ones. There is not one shred of desire in me to be even a drop of contribution to that ocean. I’d rather stay on the beach altogether (with a good book, of course!).

 

14 Worthless Predictions for the NFL Season

  1. Dak Prescott (QB, Cowboys) will win the starting job in Dallas and be named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
  2. Dallas will win the NFC East.
  3. Jeff Fisher will be the first coach to be fired this season, after the Rams start 2-6
  4. The Houston Texas will win the AFC South.
  5. Jimmy Garoppolo (QB, Patriots) will go 1-3 as a starter.
  6. The Cleveland Browns will go 10-6, make the playoffs, and Robert Griffin III will be Comeback Player of the Year.
  7. The Oakland Raiders will win the AFC West.
  8. The Carolina Panthers will win the NFC South.
  9. The Vikings will end the season with Shaun Hill at quarterback, after another season-ending injury for Sam Bradford.
  10. Falcons QB Matt Ryan will be benched before Week 8.
  11. The Green Bay Packers will win the NFC North and the NFC Championship.
  12. Aaron Rodgers will be the 2016 NFL MVP.
  13. The New England Patriots will win the AFC East and the AFC Championship.
  14. The Patriots win the Super Bowl, and Tom Brady announces his retirement.

Quote of the Day

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is no such work. As other countless fans have pointed out, the writing of the work is mediocre, at best—full of clichés and halfhearted character development, with a plot that is absolutely riddled with holes. Many of the original characters (especially Hermione) are not true to their original selves, serving as two-dimensional copycats.

So what does the book do? Well, it keeps the Harry Potter series alive and in the limelight. It serves to inspire new fans to return to the original books. And it definitively makes money—lots of it. But that’s the extent of its virtues.

I caution you, because I think there’s a point at which truly excellent authors know how to say “enough.” Their fans can content themselves with the simplicity and beauty of a finite offering (be it one book or seven). Limiting the scope of a fictional creation enables it to stay mysterious, enchanting, and delightful. Limiting the scope of Harry Potter serves to inspire and foster the imagination of its fans more than coughing up another 20 volumes ever would.

-Gracy Olmstead, in an “open letter” to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling that also doubles as a disappointed review of the published play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Olmstead gets to something important here: Churning out low-quality work, merely for the sake of keeping a franchise in the news, is not just bad for the franchise, it’s bad for the reader. No matter how many superfans will wait in line at Barnes and Noble for your newest offering, there is something in this kind of hyper-nostalgic, never-say-die mentality that robs future generations of the literary richness that comes from having some of the story untold.

The Roots of Conspiracy Theory Rage

Checking my spam folder today, I saw an email from a conservative watchdog group. The email opened like this:

Dear Fellow Conservative,

Do you ever just wonder: what on earth is going on with the liberals in the Democrat party? 

Do they just have no clue what they’re doing to America? Or are they are so spiteful of the American way of life that they are actively working to destroy it?

Note the bold font on the last sentence, meant to draw the reader’s eye and suggest the author’s own beliefs. The writer of the email wants you to believe that the reason your political opponents are so wrong isn’t that they’re mistaken, it’s that they’re evil. In just a few words, the issue has shifted from the wrongness of liberalism’s ideas to the wicked, hostile intentions of its adherents.

But why? What evidence is there to suggest that liberals are “spiteful” of people like me? Well, evidence is largely beside the point; the email is meant to confirm suspiciousness in me that’s already there long before it arrives. And we have to concede this to the sender: This is indeed how so much of our political discourse in America goes right now. The space between “wrong” and “evil” has shrunk so badly that it’s almost obligatory now to preface criticism of someone with, “I don’t think they’re a bad person.” In a culture where people’s first assumption was that disagreements happen because of competing ideas, not  because minions want to ruin everything, no such preface would be necessary. It’s necessary in our culture because “This person is wrong about issue X” is almost always interpreted as a commentary on their character. If someone gets issue X wrong, it’s because they know they’re wrong and just want to hurt others.

This is, I think, a very important element in conspiracy theory thinking. Once you’re sold on the idea that honest wrongness is impossible, everything your opponents say becomes, in your eyes, evidence of their treason. Consider the usual progression of straw-man fallacies. Person A says to person B, “I think your real goal is to do Y to America.” Person B replies, “No, that’s not my goal at all,” to which person A says, “Well of course you’d deny it if it really was!” Bias confirmation kicks in, and there’s almost no way to convince person A otherwise, because everything they see is either what they predicted or evidence that person B is hiding something. That’s conspiracy theory thinking. And there’s no clean way off that psychological merry-go-round.

Quote of the Day

All people are unique individuals and we can be sure that Mr. Weiner’s problems are at least in part a matter of his personal psycho-pathologies. Yet his behavior squares with what we have observed with all too many men, especially in the U.S. or other Western countries that enjoy liberal values and material prosperity. These are men who, by any objective measure, have succeeded yet regard themselves as failures. These are men who feel marooned in lassitude because they enjoy physical security, who feel bereft and bored even if they are blessed to have the committed love of a wife or girlfriend. These are men who believe that cruising the internet for explicit footage of other women or sharing such images of themselves over the remote communication offered by smartphones are risqué but risk-free distractions from the tedium.

The march of technology is irreversible and we aren’t so naive as to believe that any kind of imposed regulation could ever reseal the Pandora’s box of pornography. What is required is an honest dialogue about what we are witnessing—the true nature and danger of porn—and an honor code to tamp it down in the collective interests of our well-being as individuals, as families and as communities.

-From this remarkable joint op-ed by rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and actress and former centerfold Pamela Anderson. Bet you didn’t expect to see those two together.