I Miss Blockbuster

I miss Blockbuster.

Hopefully you know what I’m talking about: The video rental megachain that for years was the first place you’d check if you wanted to watch a movie on a slow Friday night. Not long ago a movie was either playing in the cinema, renting out at Blockbuster, or was (for the moment anyway) unwatchable. For years, Blockbuster was the only way to watch a particular movie at home without shelling out for the full cost of the video/DVD (remember when that distinction was a HUGE deal?). If you wanted to watch a movie you didn’t have, you went to Blockbuster.

Oh sure, Blockbuster had competition, in the same way that Wal-Mart has “competition.” Its rival stores would boast either more selection, better pricing, or longer rental times. It didn’t matter, really. Blockbuster was a cultural fixture, an institution as much as a company. If you were renting a movie, you “went to the Blockbuster,” even if technically the words on the building said something else– just like most of the country asks for a Coke even when they just mean soda.

I remember the Blockbuster on Bardstown Road, just 2 minutes from the house I grew up in here in Louisville. I remember Dad and I walking inside trying to find new movies that looked interesting but that we had missed in theaters. I remember the manager of that store mainly because he was a younger looking man who stayed at that same Blockbuster for over 8 years (even as our Blockbuster runs became more sporadic over the years, the manager remained familiar to us, and eventually I just asked him). Eight years at a Blockbuster?

Nowadays, the wooden rows of new hits and old favorites have been replaced by invisible “My List” queues on Netflix and pixelated “Stream Now” buttons on iTunes and Amazon. Blockbuster went out of business a few years ago, squeezed between the emerging technology of instant streaming and the $0 overhead of Redbox. Of course, that’s how business and history go. Instant streaming is too convenient to fire up the car for a Blockbuster run. Redbox is too cheap to justify a 4 dollar, 4 night rental, that required a second trip back to the store. Innovation and technology booted the old ways. That’s how things go.

But there is something to lament here. There is something to lament about the end of a ritual, one that required actually going and being somewhere. To rent a movie once meant going to a store, and seeing other people, possibly someone you knew. It once meant actually leaving the house and seeing people and things and places that reminded you that you weren’t the only person in your city that wanted to watch a movie–or maybe even that particular movie–that night.

Do you think it’s possible we’ve lost that in the Netflix Age? I think so. It seems every cultural recreation has been reduced to its most basic mechanics. “Watching a movie” becomes “streaming a movie,” and in that vocabularly shift we have the loss of things like video stores and the people inside them. “Listening to music” becomes “downloading music” and in that we see the disappearance of things like record stores, and the people inside of those. You see what has happened? Technology has freed us from hassle and expense mainly by freeing us from others.

Maybe that’s why I got nostalgic for Blockbuster. You see, with Netflix, there’s no Bardstown Road store, with a manager of 8 years who probably has some interesting stories. With Spotify, there’s no “Book and Music Exchange,” where I might see that one album from my childhood that I had completely forgotten about but that the mere sight of has brought me back to a particular time in my life. All of that has now been replaced with something called a “Search” form, a one way road to getting exactly what I want without having to deal with anything that might pull my attention elsewhere.

I miss Blockbuster. Of course, if I have a hankering for a kind of Blockbuster experience, I have options. A local “family video” store offers less stock for less price. And of course there’s always Redbox, where a little self-discipline and memory can give me and Emily a $1 movie night. I’m not hurting for choices, and I’m not complaining. I suppose I’m just remembering a ritual from years gone by, a ritual that probably seemed inconvenient and expensive and crowded at the time. Now, it just seems fun.

Character and Courage

I saw the new Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies last weekend. My wife and I enjoyed it. It’s an engrossing, well-acted movie, beautifully shot by legendary cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List). Fair warning: This is a Cold War movie in more than subject matter; if you’re looking for explosions and gunfights, head elsewhere. Bridge of Spies is a movie for people who enjoy listening to other people talk.

Tom Hanks portrays James B. Donovan, the real-life insurance lawyer at the height of the Cold War who was asked to defend a suspect Soviet spy in court. I’ll leave enough unsaid to give those of you who (like me) don’t know the history a cause to see the film, but I’ll summarize it thusly: Donovan risked his professional and personal life in representing Rudolf Abel, and then did it all again–at the further behest of his country–by entering East Germany to negotiate a crucial prisoner exchange with the Germans and Russians.

Donovan was a man of remarkable courage. He cut across the passions of the country by insisting that Abel be represented fairly, even to the Supreme Court. He presciently warned the civil judge who sentenced Abel that a death penalty would ruin any chance to use him as leverage in case the Soviets captured an American. And he stood his ground with Soviet negotiators, insisting on favorable terms even when threatened. One of the characters in the film gives Donovan the nickname “Standing Man.” It suits him.

Resolute character in the face of intense opposition is a favorite theme of Spielberg. He seems to relish the stories of those kind of men, whether real (Abraham Lincoln, Oskar Schindler) or imaginary (Capt. John Miller). Courageous people are obviously of evergreen interest to novelists and filmmakers, but one thing that sets Spielberg’s heroes apart is the courage of their self-mastery. Spielberg’s courageous characters are not merely brave in the culturally convenient senses of the word. They are not brave in their self-actualization; they are brave in their self-sacrifice. There is a tremendous difference.

If you were to ask most people today to list the 3 most important virtues, do you think courage would be on the list? Perhaps, but I doubt it. I don’t think that’s because we fail to see the necessity of courage. Rather, my guess is that, in a culture of pure self-actualization and assertion of “my story,” all of us simply believe that we are courageous by default. A generation’s worth of agonized psychological health campaigns and “self-esteem” parenting literature have made all of us deeply suspicious that we are being very courageous and very brave merely by getting out of the bed in the morning.

Consider the lyrics of Katy Perry’s “Roar,” one of the most popular songs of the last year. What is “Roar” if not a celebratory anthem for crowning oneself courageous for the achievement of existence?

I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sit quietly, agree politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything

What does “agree politely” and “past the breaking point” mean here? I guess it’s hypothetically possible that Perry has recorded an upbeat, catchy mainstream pop tune about domestic violence, but I doubt it. Perry gives us a clue what she means elsewhere in the song:

Now I’m floating like a butterfly
Stinging like a bee I earned my stripes
I went from zero, to my own hero

The key phrase there is “my own hero.” Not YOUR hero. Not THEIR hero. MY own hero. Perry’s song is about freeing oneself from the life of what Ayn Rand called “second-handers,” people whose sense of identity consists in being approved and admired so much so that they forget to love anything else. That is indeed a noble goal, and one that can point towards heaven, as Screwtape warned Wormwood.

But does being “my own hero” also mean, as the chorus sings, “I am a champion”? Is asserting oneself as an individual really the deepest and most genuine form of courage? If it is, then I’m afraid men like James Donovan and Abraham Lincoln were deeply self-deceived. Those men believed the way they could courageous was not by asserting their own personal championhood, or becoming “their own hero” to the frustrated designs of those around them. Rather, people like Lincoln and Donovan were willing to lay down their lives for the cause of something outside them, for something that had lasted and would last well beyond their lives and their fortunes. Rather than asserting their inherent awesomeness, these men became servants. They chose to say “Here I am” rather than “Hear me roar.”

When Christ said that whoever keeps his life will lose it, he wasn’t merely being poetic. Claiming an autonomous self-dictation over our lives may bring with it the sensations of thrill and adventure, but ultimately, by losing our courage and our character, we become absorbed in the elementary systems of the world. It’s true that we should follow what is truth and right regardless of how many voices invite us elsewhere. But it’s just as true that truth and right are not determined by the dictates of our hearts. It’s not that we shouldn’t live for ourselves, it’s that we can’t. We were made to give ourselves up. That’s who we really are, and only in doing that can we become more like our true selves, more like what–or, indeed, like Who–we were meant to be.

Rather than being told to follow our heart, what my generation needs is to be told to lay down our lives for something great and true and beautiful and timeless. So much of what is mistaken for courage these days is merely the shriveling of the person back into itself. We should heed the example of James Donovan and be willing to give ourselves to others, to great causes, even to (that dreaded word!) institutions and places. Even if no movie is ever made about our courage, we have a Father in heaven who promises that if we lose our life, we will, in the end, find it.

Christians and College Debt

I’ve found myself thinking about one particular classmate from my undergraduate years. We entered around the same time. He was able to graduate much sooner than I, though, mostly because his Sallie Mae loan covered enough of his college bill so that he could take a full load or more every semester without working many hours (if he worked at all). Unfortunately, my friend made an alarming discovery upon graduation: His bachelor’s degree, though fully accredited and indicative of a high quality education, wasn’t exactly a “Get A Job Free” card. He soon realized that a bachelor’s degree in theology was not going to help him the way he’d planned when his loan repayments came due. He was forced to get a 30 hour per week job and enroll as a new undergrad in a local public university to get a more marketable degree, merely for the hope of landing a job that would empower him to pay off the loan for his first college experience.

For many American college students, this story hits close to home. Student loan debt is no longer a minor macroeconomic footnote. Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies instead dubs it a “time bomb,” a gravely serious economic stranglehold on millions of Americans. Collins notes that student loan debt is already higher than the US’s total credit card debt and will, according to some economists, balloon even more at the turn of the decade. One report released last year estimated that 70% of graduating seniors carry debt out of college and that the average student debt was just south of $30,000.

In February The New Yorker ran a fascinating article on Corinthian Colleges, a company that until recently ran hundreds of “for-profit” colleges. Due to financial troubles, Corinthian was forced to shut down all of its Canadian schools and many of its American ones, leaving students–who had taken out significant amounts of loans to help pay for an education from a Corinthian college–with little or nothing to show for their time there. The piece documented the plight of students “protesting” the events by demanding that their loans be forgiven, since the education they were taken out for is worth little. Federal agencies and US senators have joined the fray, imploring Congress to force the forgiveness of part or all of the debts.

This story poses an important moral dilemma for Christian collegians, many of whom find themselves in exactly the kind of financial straits described above. Some Christian writers have endorsed the strategies of the students protesting Corinthian, insisting that student loan is inherently unjust debt and that schools, creditors and government have a moral obligation to wipe such debt clean. That’s precisely the argument of Tad Hopp in his recent piece “Degrees of Debt.” Hopp’s passionate argument is appealing because he’s right that the problem of crushing student loan goes beyond the individual students themselves. His demand for a “conversation” about national debt forgiveness is hard to resist, as is his insistence that federal agencies and loan companies are in perfectly fine shape to not collect a few hundred million more.

But Hopp sidesteps the relevant biblical and moral questions that Christian students tempted to refuse to pay back their student loans are really facing. Before the relationship of a college student to a lender is a systematic justice issue (and it very well may be), it IS, in fact, an issue of individual character. Biblical wisdom literature is filled with admonitions both to avoid debt if possible, and to be sure to pay back whatever is borrowed. Refusing to do so is not only a serious legal matter, it is a matter of personal character before God. The Scripture commends the one who keeps his word even when it costs him, and it assumes that Christians keep balanced accounts with others. A plain reading of Biblical wisdom and morality makes clear that refusal to repay what is borrowed is not an option for a Christian.

But–and this is crucial–that is not the same as saying that Christian college students are doomed to become servant-scholars. There are biblically faithful and intelligent ways to deal with crushing student debt. Hopp is correct that the system is broken, but he needs to take this argument further and realize that the system’s biggest fault is the gap between student expectation and reality. Many students are willing to go into serious debt to enter college because they believe a bachelor’s degree is as good as a career. That was never really true, but it’s certainly a fiction in today’s economy. Hopp is right that we need a national conversation, but not a conversation about debt protests; rather, we need a national conversation about university alternatives like community college, technical schools, apprenticeships, and much more.  None of this suggests that four year degrees are bad or wasteful, but it does suggest that their monopoly on the imaginations of students and the aspirations of parents and teachers is a problem.

What about Christians who currently have student loan debt? As we’ve seen, Scripture assumes that Christians are people who pay what they owe to whom they owe it. That doesn’t mean that Christian students shouldn’t reach out for help, whether in the form of deferments or grants. Depending on the severity of the debt and the life situation of the student, putting a hold on further education might be necessary. That’s OK. Taking a semester off to get control of personal finances is not an admission of defeat or a forfeit of the future. Churches and Christian communities can help with this by dismantling the many stigmas around not being enrolled in university. Knowledge and wisdom are not always the same.

Christian universities should lead the way in being honest with prospective students about the costs of tuition, living, and other expenses. Not too long ago I was looking around on the website of Biola University, a Christina liberal arts school in Southern California. A good-sized section of their “Prospective Students” page was dedicated to calculating the cost of attending a private school in Orange County, including a friendly reminder that life there is considerably more expensive than most of the nation. I was impressed with the effort Biola put forth to be transparent with students, even if it meant some students turning away. Where students get in trouble is when recruiters obscure the realities of debt by encouraging incoming freshmen to “just take out a loan.” Christian schools should acknowledge that loan agencies are an option but never encourage students to go into serious debt without thinking soberly about the implications.

A final word to parents and students together: Don’t be afraid, or embarrassed, if you choose university to select a local school and live at home for a while. In many cases the costs of tuition are only a fraction of the cost of living in a college campus. Ignoring the meaningless propaganda about “the college experience,” parents and students can experience a tremendous amount of financial freedom by picking local schools, especially ones that offer in-state tuition benefits. Some Christians unwisely automatically dismiss this as “delayed adulthood,” but I can assure that what happens in most university dorms bears not even a passing resemblance to adulthood. If living in a spare room or basement can empower a student to throw herself into studies and remain financially afloat at the same time, embrace wisdom rather than the stereotype.

4 (Simple) Responses to Science-Based Atheism

Lack of scientific knowledge can leave Christians feeling vulnerable when talking to unbelieving friends about why faith is superior to skepticism. Many college students discover atheism through science classes; students who enter university as Christians have their faith fiercely tested by their studies, and too many give up the fight merely because they assume that a biology professor must be correct about whether God exists. When a little bit of childlike faith meets a lot of studied atheism, fear can take control.

That’s unnecessary. You don’t have to have a degree in science to have something to say to those with scientific objections to faith. Here are four simple responses to those who say that science has either disproved God or has made belief in God unnecessary:

1) We cannot know from science if science itself is the best source of knowledge. 

There are two possibilities when it comes to human knowledge through science. The first possibility is that everything that is real is actually reducible to scientific principles. Everything–from the universe, to human emotion, to spiritual experiences–is explainable through scientific research. The other option is simple: Not all existence can be explained through science.

Here’s why this question matters. If the first option is true, then logically, science absolutely is the supreme mode of knowledge, and everything we believe about anything must be in submission to it. The problem though is that whether or not all of reality is utlimately explainable through scientific concepts is not itself a scientifically provable theory. It is a philosophical premise, not a scientific conclusion. The only way to definitively prove that science explains everything would be to have exhaustive knowledge of all reality, and then be able to explain (using only scientific data) what all reality is and what it means. Such a feat is impossible. Therefore, the belief that science is the best source of knowledge must be accepted on faith, for it cannot be verified through testing.

2) Scientific consensus can and frequently does change. This limits its epistemological authority. 

The progressive nature of scientific inquiry is essential to its value. Done rightly, science can correct its own errors. But this presupposes that science can make errors in the first place. And if that’s true, then the question is: How do we know what could be a current error in scientific consensus, and what do we know is absolutely true?

This is a very important question to ask religious skeptics who appeal to science. A likely response is that science may be wrong on almost everything it says, but it almost certainly isn’t wrong about what it doesn’t say; ie, if science hasn’t revealed God by now, it’s not rational to think it will. But this objection misses the point. One does not wait on science to exhaustively explain something before believing it. If that were so then 99% of human beings on the planet would not believe in the most basic realities of existence, or would be irrational in believing without having exhaustive scientific knowledge. If current scientific consensus points away from the existence of God (a highly disputable point, by the way), then who is to say that consensus cannot change? If it can, then science’s intellectual authority is limited, and the expectation that it will continue to oppose religious belief is more a matter of faith.

3) Only supernatural theism provides a rational justification of scientific work. 

The wording of this point is very important. If we left out the word “rational,” then the statement would actually be false and quite easy to shoot down. You don’t need supernatural theism to be curious, or to want to explore the natural world. But you do need supernatural theism to have a rational justification of science. What does the word rational mean there? It means that scientific inquiry done on the assumption that there is no higher intelligence than evolved human intelligence is making a value judgment that it has no right to make.

Why is knowledge better than ignorance? The atheist would respond that ignorance has less survival value than truth; after all, if you believe wrong things or do not know enough about your environment, you’re less likely to survive and flourish. But this explanation only applies to a very small amount of scientific knowledge. There is little survival value in knowing, for example, the complicated workings of time–space theory, or the genus of certain insects, or the distance of Jupiter from Mars. All of these facts are pursued by scientists as being intrinsically valuable, yet they offer very little information that can help guarantee a species’ continued existence on the planet.

The real explanation is that scientists pursue these facts because there is intrinsic value in knowing what is true about the world, regardless of how much help it gives us. Human beings believe that knowing is better than ignorance because they believe that truth is better than falsity, and light is better than darkness. But where does such a conclusion come from? It does not come from scientific principles. Science itself offers no self-evident account for why it should be pursued. You cannot study science hard enough to understand why you should study science at all. To study science presupposes a valuing of truth that must be experienced outside of scientific study. It is only rational to pursue scientific knowledge that doesn’t offer immediate survival value if there is some external, transcendent value in knowing truth. Theism offers an explanation for why knowing truth is valuable. Scientific atheism does not.

4) Only supernatural theism gives us assurance that real scientific knowledge is possible.

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga is famous for articulating what he calls the “evolutionary argument against naturalism.”

The argument is complicated in detail but simple in premise. Plantinga begins by putting two facts alongside each other that nearly all atheists agree on. First, the theory of evolution is true, and humans have descended from lower life forms over time. Secondly, humans are rational beings in a higher degree and superior way to lesser evolved creatures. Plantinga then points our attention towards a tension between these two facts. If human beings are a more evolved species of primate, then our cognitive faculties (ie, the parts of our body and mind that allow us to be rational creatures) have evolved out of lesser cognitive faculties.

But, Plantinga says, if God does not exist, then the only factors that affected human evolution are time and chance. Based on time and chance alone, why should we be confident that our rational minds–which are merely the sum of lesser evolved minds plus time and chance–are actually rational at all? What basis do we have to believe our own conclusions? How do we know we are actually capable of knowing truth more than a primate? If the only players in our existence are lesser creatures, time, and chance, how do we know we are even highly evolved at all?

This astute observation was echoed by Thomas Nagel in his recent book Mind and Cosmos. Nagel, an agnostic philosopher from New York University, argues that human comprehension of the universe cannot be explained merely by atheistic evolutionary processes. It makes no sense to assume that humans can really make sense of their world on a conceptual level if human consciousness arose out of the very world it responds to. Nagel agrees with Plantinga that atheistic naturalism cannot explain why human beings can be rational creatures and do rational things that should be trusted.

Scientific knowledge is only possible if things unprovable by science are actually true. If Carl Sagan is correct and the material universe is all there was, is, and ever will be, then science itself is nothing more than a shot in the dark. If, however, human beings are the products of an infinitely greater Mind, then we have justification for believing that true and false are realities and not merely the shadow puppets of our ancestors.

The Sexual Revolution Still Hates Women

Rebecca Traister, writing in New York Magazine, says that when it comes to sex, women are in a permanent position of disadvantage and injustice in our culture. All sex–even consensual sex–is dominated by a “power imbalance” that favors men and prioritizes male desires. Sex used to be feminist, Traister argues, but then looming specter of patriarchy intervened, and now women can’t even win for losing:

It’s rigged in ways that go well beyond consent. Students I spoke to talked about “male sexual entitlement,” the expectation that male sexual needs take priority, with men presumed to take sex and women presumed to give it to them. They spoke of how men set the terms, host the parties, provide the alcohol, exert the influence. Male attention and approval remain the validating metric of female worth, and women are still (perhaps increasingly) expected to look [like] porn stars…

[T]hen there are the double standards that continue to redound negatively to women: A woman in pursuit is loose or hard up; a man in pursuit is healthy and horny. A woman who says no is a prude… a man who says no is rejecting the woman in question.

Traister bemoans these “sexual judgements” and the way they position women to either leave unsatisfied or shamed. Even if consent and safety are present, women in today’s sexual marketplace too frequently disappear into the desires and dictates of men, leading to what one writer that Traister cites calls “Sex where we don’t matter.”

To which I say: Yes! Traister is exactly correct. The Sexual Revolution’s marketplace is indeed brazenly anti-women. When sex is a public commodity, women and children always have the worst, least valuable shares. This isn’t a wrinkle of sexual revolutionism; it’s a feature.

But Traister doesn’t want to challenge the reigning sexual nihilism of her time. In fact, she wants to make clear to anyone who might misinterpret her that casual sex and hookup culture are by all means beautiful and good. “This is not pearl-clutching over the moral or emotional hazards of “hookup culture,” she quickly clarifies. “This is not an objection to promiscuity or to the casual nature of some sexual encounters…Having humiliating sex with a man who treats you terribly at a frat party is bad but not inherently worse than being publicly shunned for having had sex with him, or being unable to obtain an abortion after getting pregnant by him, or being doomed to have disappointing sex with him for the next 50 years.”

If that isn’t a perfect summary of the self-deluded state of the modern secular self, I don’t know what is. You can see Traister’s thought process working towards the obvious truth: That maybe a culture of casual and irrelevant sex lends itself to an erotic Darwinism where the powerful and energetic will subdue others. You can hear the beginnings of a profound dissatisfaction with the terms of the Sexual Revolution. But in the end it is all stamped out by the glitz of modern accessories to our individual autonomy. Having humiliating sex becomes better than not having enough sex. Being taken advantage of is not as bad as carrying a child. Evil is bad, but at least it’s not boring.

But Traister’s honesty betrays her worldview. Her observations of the inequalities of casual sex are more durable than her rote progressivism. Traister begins the piece, after all, quoting a fellow feminist’s story about a drunken, unsatisfying sexual experience she once had with a group of frat boys. The fellow writer consented and everything happened seemingly according to the rules. The problems start when she wakes up. “But in the morning, she wrote, ‘I feel weird about what went down.'” There you go. When the alcohol stops coursing and the bodies stop moving, all that’s left is the throbbing of the soul, even if through cultural re-education and indulgence all that the mind can muster is, “That was weird.”

Rebecca Traister writes from the front lines of the Sexual Revolution’s civil war. It’s a civil war between nature and rhetoric. The rhetoric says, “We’re all equal and entitled!” The nature says, “I am stronger and more important than you.” Sex in which women “don’t matter” isn’t a rotting leftover from the Puritans; it’s the fresh du jour of the Darwinian world outside the world of transcendence, meaning, love, beauty, devotion, and God.  The chains of marriage and monogamy are loathed by the same culture that excels in sex trafficking, campus rape, and human consumerism.

Listen to Allan Bloom:

In all this, the sexual revolution was precisely what it said it was–a liberation. But some of the harshness of nature asserted itself beneath the shattered conventions: the young were more apt to profit from the revolution than the old, the beautiful more than the ugly. The old veil of discretion had had the effect of making these raw and ill-distributed natural advantages less important in life and marriage.

But now there was little attempt to apply egalitarian justice in these matters…The undemocratic aspects of free sex were compensated for in our harmless and mildly ridiculous way: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was preached more vigorously than formerly; the cosmetics industry had a big boom; and education and therapy in the style of Masters and Johnson, promising great orgasms to every subscriber, became common…These were the days when pornography slipped its leash. (The Closing of the American Mind, p. 99)

Welcome to the Sexual Revolution, where the sex is free because the women foot the bill.

TED Talks: Sermons For a Secular Age

I was talking to a friend the other day about certain trends of the millennial generation. One of those trends that came up was my peers’ fascination with TED Talks. My friend was only vaguely familiar with the videos, so to help clarify what they were, I described them this way: “They’re essentially sermons for secular millennials.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that what we’re seeing in the “TED Talk” series is a secular manifestation of the sermon. If you’ve never watched a TED Talk before, I recommend you do so. That’s not necessarily because all of the videos are helpful (most aren’t, actually), but because it is utterly fascinating to watch a homiletical exercise that attracts large, young audiences, for good amounts of time (20+ minutes). I’m old enough to remember when a lot of evangelical literature urged pastors and church leaders to change their approach to preaching. “The younger generation can’t listen to a 30 minute speech,” the thinking went. “You can’t just talk to people anymore.”

It turns out you can.

Now of course, all TED Talks are different. Some are less like others. But in general, the TED Talks I’ve seen share at least two distinct similarities with traditional preaching.

First, TED Talks are very propositional. It’s true that a lot of TED Talks deal with personal stories and narratives. But what strikes me about the TED series is how proposition and information-driven it can be. There are many TED videos that consist mainly of the speaker passing on raw information or data to the audience. Some of the information can be quite techincal, such as cognitive research science or sociological data crunching.

Good Christian preaching is, of course, also quite propositional. There’s a lot of information that has to be transmitted between preacher and congregation for the meaning of the biblical text to be clear. And it’s remarkable to me that in an age where many Christian preachers are urged to eliminate as much as possible the “dry” transfer of propositional knowledge to their congregations, there are millions of people joyfully watching a lone speaker talk about statistics and research, eager to know how to apply that information to their lives.

Secondly, TED speakers are authoritative. Again, there are exceptions, but in a large number of cases the speaker in a TED Talk does not seek to have a “conversation” with the audience as much as she wants the audience to grasp how their presuppositions about something are incorrect and possibly inhibiting their lives. The TED series is filled with titles like, “Forget What You Thought You Knew About ____,” and “Why You Should Immediately Stop ____.”

In a typical TED setting, there is a clear demarcation between the knowledge that the speaker possesses and the knowledge that the audience possesses. Most TED speakers I’ve seen don’t fumble over their main points through endless reminders that “This may not apply to you” or “Your story may be different.” There is an expectation in the very essence of the TED Talk that the speaker has something which the audience needs and otherwise will probably be unable to grasp. This is authority.

Obviously, in this kind of secular setting, the speaker would not lay claim to any sort of meaningful moral authority over the audience. There’s nothing to resemble the kind of revelatory authority that evangelicals believe is invested in the faithful preaching of Scripture. But there is a kind of authority, an authority of medium that betrays our hyper-egalitarian cultural instincts. The people who come to a TED talk are not coming for a self-actualizing experience through a “conversation” with the speaker (though that word is a cultural shibboleth and is thus used to disguise the authoritative posture being taken). They’re coming to learn from someone who knows, and to walk away with something they didn’t have.

Absent a theological center, TED Talks are merely inspirational speeches from qualified teachers. But the specter of something more is obvious. We may not be as “over the whole church thing” as we think.

The lessons of George Bell

“You can die in such anonymity in New York.”

This lengthy story in The New York Times is a haunting, heartbreaking narrative that depicts a reality that many of us might be embarrassed to admit is one of our greatest fears: Dying utterly alone. “The Lonely Death of George Bell” is a fine piece of investigative journalism by N.R. Kleinfield, but more than that, it is a grievous commentary on the ability of lives to disappear–both by individual choice and by societal obliviousness.

Here’s an excerpt:

Neighbors had last seen him six days earlier, a Sunday. On Thursday, there was a break in his routine. The car he always kept out front and moved from one side of the street to the other to obey parking rules sat on the wrong side. A ticket was wedged beneath the wiper. The woman next door called Mr. Bell. His phone rang and rang.

Then the smell of death and the police and the sobering reason that George Bell did not move his car.

Each year around 50,000 people die in New York, and each year the mortality rate seems to graze a new low, with people living healthier and longer. A great majority of the deceased have relatives and friends who soon learn of their passing and tearfully assemble at their funeral. A reverent death notice appears. Sympathy cards accumulate. When the celebrated die or there is some heart-rending killing of the innocent, the entire city might weep.

A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.

Who was George Bell? Kleinfield’s inquiry into this anonymous New Yorker’s life yields very little. There are photographs of a teenage George sitting beside his father at Christmas, looking content and happy (“He was especially attached to his parents,” Kleinfield writes). As the years progress, the photos begin to depict a man with large appetites but little joy. He spent the last 20 years of his life collecting disability payments, a union pension, and, as a “hoarder,” just about anything else he could get. But he never had people over, never went out with friends. He existed, and obtained. That was the extent of George Bell’s life.

Why did this article affect me so much? I think it may be because, in a way, I identify with George Bell. Why was he the way that he was? What stopped  him every time the thought occurred to him that he should maybe, just maybe, go out with a friend, or write a letter, or call somebody? What was it that he believed about himself or about others that made a rotting, shrinking apartment more comfortable and more appealing than a week’s vacation?

The truth is I don’t know. And that’s why I identify with him. This kind of habitual solitude, this kind of perpetual retreat into one’s own decaying lifestyle, defies logic and reason, and yet, its appeal is undeniable. To never be at the mercy of someone’s probing questions. To never have to explain why it’s been so long. To never have to promise someone to get help, or to see a doctor, or to make that visit. Anonymity is the currency of autonomy. The best way to have control over my life is to make sure to keep others out.

Is that what happened with George Bell? I’m not sure. Perhaps, as the article suggests, there were psychological factors at work. But what about us? It’s easy to look at the unrestrained chaos of a New York hoarder’s apartment and scorn, but should we? We are, after all, the lonely generation. We are the lonely generation that marvels at our social networks and our mobile connectedness, collecting “Friends” and “Likes” and “Followers” much the same way that George Bell collected trinkets. Are our digital villages much better than the locked apartments of anonymous New York pensioners?

We such a desperately lonely people. Whether we read about the sad life of a George Bell, or about the angry isolation of a school shooter, we can’t deny this. We are lonely, and in most cases, we don’t even know it.

Perhaps it would be a mistake to try to draw out a simple “lesson” from the death of George Bell. Perhaps it would be too crass, an inadvertent participation in the dismissal of life that seemed to define his last two decades. But it seems right to me to reflect for a moment on the tragedy of a life spent and finished in obscurity. It doesn’t have to be like that. It was never meant to be like that. Our God is the God who puts the lonely in families, and not just families that share DNA but families that share adoption in Christ. The church is where loneliness meets its match.

Did anyone ever tell George Bell?

A Conversation With “Safe,” “Legal,” and “Rare”

The following post imagines a three-way dialogue between pro-choice talking points Safe, Legal, and Rare. 

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: Correction, it doesn’t HAVE to be a corner.

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.

Rare: I really don’t see how you can say that.

Legal: Well 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: You can do that hypothetically. But when it comes 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: I guess I don’t see it that way.

Safe: Nor I.

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: At least we agree.

C.S. Lewis Explains When To Stop Believing a Doctrine

One thing I’ve read a lot lately from some contemporary progressive evangelical writers is this: If a particular belief makes relationships difficult, or makes people around you feel alienated or upset, you should probably stop believing that doctrine.

The logic goes like this. Jesus said we can judge a tree by its fruits. When people are excluded by or express personal frustration at a point of doctrine, we should be suspicious of that doctrine because of the bad fruit it is beginning to bear. On the flip side, we should evaluate doctrines for their truthfulness in large part by whether or not they bear good fruit–that is, by whether or not, by believing them, we become more friendly, more inclusive, and more ingratiating to the people around us.

But C.S. Lewis has some problems with this idea. And in his essay “Man Or Rabbit,” he explains why this sort of approach of doctrine isn’t a respectable one:

One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human. As a matter of fact, I don’t think any of you have really lost that desire. More probably, foolish preachers, by always telling you how much Christianity will help you and how good it is for society, have actually led you to forget that Christianity is not a patent medicine.

Christianity claims to give an account of facts–to tell you what the real universe is like. Its account of the universe may be true, or it may not, and once the question is really before you, then your natural inquisitiveness must make you want to know the answer. If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be; if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all. [God in the Dock, p.108-109]

When we’re looking at doctrine, our ultimate question cannot be, “Is this helping us?” Rather our ultimate question must be, “Is this true?” That means at least two things.

First, it means that our doctrines of Christian belief are not meant primarily to help us live and work well with others on this earth, but to help us know and be known by God. We should indeed strive to live at peace with all men, and our love for other Christians is a sure mark of our Christianity. But this is much different from saying the essence of our Christianity is our relationships with other humans. Christianity is news from God first, before it is helpful to us.

Second, it means that we simply cannot judge a doctrine’s truthfulness by how seemingly helpful it is in our life. Truthfulness and helpfulness are not the same thing. To conflate the two is really a Darwinistic way of looking at Christianity, as if the “strong” doctrines that further social harmony are meant to survive and the “weak” doctrines that are antiquated or unpopular need to die off. The Bible is clear on many points of doctrine that our neighbors may not admire us for believing, or that may not actually help us win favor and friendship (even inside the church!)

But as Lewis reminded us, truth is valuable apart from its helpfulness. Truth is not merely a means to an end but an end itself. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:6)

Planned Parenthood and the Future

Yesterday Planned Parenthood leadership announced that it would stop receiving “reimbursements” for the donation of fetal tissue taken from aborted babies. It was a curious declaration, one that could be summarized (as my boss Russell Moore put it) “We never did anything wrong and we’ll stop doing it now.”

The video evidence that betrayed a profitable business from the dismembered parts of children is not silent. There is more than enough reason to think that Planned Parenthood is guilty of atrocity that far outweighs anything they have passively conceded by changing their reimbursements policy.But sadly, as the often-frustrating Congressional testimony of Cecile Richards demonstrated, it seems that the nation’s largest abortion provider is for the moment insulated from any serious trouble. There are just too many political allies, too many reliable talking points, and too few in positions of meaningful leadership willing to risk political face to confront Richards and her company.

So where does that leave us? What are we to think and say and do going forward? If what we saw in those videos was indeed what I believe we saw, we cannot be satisfied. We cannot shrug and go on to the “next cause.” If the videos were a moment of reality for pro-choice Americans, they were even more so a moment of accountability for pro-life Americans. We can’t look at the abortion debate in this country the same way after #ItsABoy. Something has changed, and a moral demand is placed upon those with the truth to do something faithful with it.

The first thing we must do as pro-life Christians is repent. We must repent of ever being comfortable with abortion as a “private values” issue. Abortion is not ultimately about “values” or “legislating morality.” It’s about legislating justice and human rights. In the absence of jarring human degradation, we can forget that. We can unwittingly accept the other side’s cries of “culture war” and comfort ourselves that we are on the right side of history, no matter what’s going on in the abortion clinic downtown. No more. We have seen, and we have heard.

Secondly, we must prepare. We have no reason to think the legal battle to restore human rights to the unborn will be any easier than was the legal battle to restore rights to millions of African slaves. “Reproductive freedom” is the plantation of our time. It is a glossy, extravagant, externally beautiful facade that runs on the churned up bodies of the innocent. If attacking the materialism of the age–indeed, the materialism in many of our own hearts!–was difficult and costly back then, why should we think it would be different now?

That means that not every skirmish over unborn rights will end in victory. It also means that not every victory will be the victory we would want. Like William Wilberforce, we have to sober and resolute enough to keep shouting, keep debating, and keep fighting even in the face of overwhelming odds and mounting defeats.

Finally, we must preach the gospel. Unless we preach the full gospel of justice, atonement, and mercy, we will not capture the hearts of this country. Even if we are armed with the most compelling visual evidence, the most airtight philosophical arguments, or the most cutting edge medical technology, the human hearts we preach to will do whatever it takes to keep from coming under the condemnation of their own conscience. A pro-life message of only judgment and justice isn’t a full pro-life message. The unborn are made in the image of the same God who put the sins of the world on his only Son. The gospel is good news that the unborn, the elderly, and the disabled have inherent human dignity, and that every crime against that dignity can be absorbed by the sacrifice of the most dignified Being in the history of the cosmos.

We must hold that hope out to a world that sees the infant hand and hears the infant cry and must explain it all away or face despair. A pro-life Christianity is either a gospel Christianity or it isn’t pro-life at all.

Planned Parenthood is open today, and for that we mourn. But we cannot resign ourselves to its world. We have too great a message, and too great a hope, not to endure in this fight. Lives, and souls, depend on it.