What I’ve Been Writing

The last couple of months have been a whirlwind of work, vacations, baby preparations, and general life minutia. In all the comings and goings I have had the opportunity to write a few pieces for some friends that readers of this blog may be interested in. Trouble’s been, I haven’t done a good job of linking to them here.

So here’s what I’ve been writing.

The Culture War is Interested In YouMere Orthodoxy

Rather than thinking of culture war as a Byzantine byword, we should consider the realities behind it. As Richard Weaver wrote many years ago, ideas have consequences. There is an undeniable conflict in American culture between the doctrines of self-authentication and autonomy and those of transcendence and obligation. “Culture war” may be too small or too cute a phrase for this conflict, but it nevertheless gets to the heart of something very important. Conservatives who think they can opt out of the culture war may think they are skipping schism en route to charity, but they are really skipping charity as well.

4 Questions For Summer Blockbusters–ERLC

The summer blockbuster is often an action-packed, thrill-a-minute crowd pleaser with plenty to keep your attention. But many times, it will also be a quickly made, unimaginatively written spectacle. Because major movie studios know that people are looking for some quick entertainment from summer movies, it’s common to see an entire season’s worth of predictable “formula films” (let’s face it: The Lone Ranger was basically Pirates of the Caribbean 5) or tired, umpteenth sequels.

While it’s easy to be content with something that merely keeps our attention for two hours, there are deeper joys to be had at the movies. As Francis Schaeffer reminds us, Christians should care about the excellence of art. We should care whether a film script shows creativity and intelligence or is too busy blowing things up to say anything. We should care whether a story is compelling or is something we’ve seen a hundred times before. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask a movie to be well-made.

The Toxic Lie of Me Before You–The Gospel Coalition

Me Before You is a rom-com lacquered in layers of sinister irony, a love story that ends up celebrating autonomy instead of love, despair instead of hope.

At the beginning we see Will’s life before the accident. He wakes up next to his lover in an expensive apartment, before walking down the street conducting what is obviously Important Business on the phone. Later, Louisa stumbles on a video on Will’s laptop that shows him jumping off gorgeous seaside cliffs with friends.

This is the “life” Will demands and cannot live without. When he says “life,” he means fun and pleasure and success—and rather than challenge this notion, the main characters of Me Before You must learn to accept it.

“It’s Going to Be an Issue”–Biola, Conscience, and the Culture War–Mere Orthodoxy

Biola University, located in Southern California and one of the country’s most well-known and prestigious evangelical colleges, now finds itself arguing for its right to be evangelical. The state legislature is seeking to amend a non-discrimination law which would stipulate that the only schools that can be granted religious exemptions to the non-discrimination statutes are schools that exist for the training of pastors and theological educators. Schools that offer more general programs—like a degree in humanities, engineering, or public education—would be required to submit to the non-discrimination law, effectively ending any legal protection for colleges and universities that want to only admit professing Christians or maintain campus-wide spiritual life programs.

 

An Abortion Facade In Shambles

4300051986_78d3cb0140_bThis morning the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that the state of Texas acted unconstitutionally when it passed restrictions on state abortion clinics, holding them to higher infrastructure and administrative standards. It’s a victory for the abortion lobby, certainly. But can it really be considered a victory for women, or health, or democracy?

No, it cannot. And that is perhaps one of the clearest realities coming into focus with the contemporary abortion movement: Increasingly, its legal and political triumphs depend on making women and families more vulnerable to exploitation and making communities more at the mercy of corporations and lobbyists. There was a time, not that long ago, that the country’s foremost abortion rights advocates preached about “safe, legal, and rare.” But for decades “safe” and “rare” have been ruthlessly assaulted, both in rhetoric and policy. The Court’s decision, mainstream media silence and equivocation about Kermit Gosnell, and the Planned Parenthood video sting have exposed an industry utterly apathetic, at best, about safety and abortion alternatives.

It turns out, as I’ve said before, that “safe, legal, and rare” was mostly a smokescreen that obscured the real moral argument that has always been at the foundation of abortion rights philosophy. “‘Safe, legal, and rare’ was a carefully crafted slogan, built to elicit both protective instincts from activists and empathy from those unsure about it all,” I wrote back in March. “But a fault line ran through the very heart of this kind of rhetoric: If abortion should be legal and safe, why should we want it to be rare?”

The logical answer is, of course, that we shouldn’t. And that is the self-awareness that many in the pro-choice movement seem to (slowly) be showing. A few hours after the Supreme Court handed down their ruling, the official Twitter account for The Daily Show–the show that made Jon Stewart famous and regrettably institutionalized the role of the comedian commentator–signaled their Sexual Revolutionary virtue loud and clear:

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 3.54.07 PM

In order for this to be funny, you have to first think that abortion is funny, and then, more literally, the idea of impregnating a woman merely for the purpose of later aborting. Hilarious, right? This is the kind of humor that the pro-choice camp of the 1990s would urgently disavow, on the grounds that it trivializes the moral and and emotional weight of choice. But in 2016, this joke is actually mainstream. Why? Because the abortion lobby has begun to accept its own logic. There is nothing to grieve or be silent about here. The Court merely affirmed the right of adults to get rid of tiny little Nothings that make life more difficult. Move along.

It’s easy to dismiss a tasteless Tweet. It’s not as easy to dismiss the entire legislative and moral ethos from which it springs. The pro-choice Left’s extremism has attacked every imaginable human resource for in controlling and preventing abortions, except for birth control, a substance so precious that apparently even nuns must agree. Earlier this year in Kentucky, Matt Bevin, the new Republican governor, discovered that a new Planned Parenthood clinic had been offering abortions without the required licensing. Apparently, this unlicensed operation was carried out with the approval of Bevin’s Democratic predecessor. When the clinic temporarily halted services, the abortion lobby in Kentucky and elsewhere lashed out at Bevin for endangering women. Catch that: The governor who caught the medical provider operating without a license is the one who is putting people at risk.

Pro-lifers have said for decades that the debate over abortion is not a debate about choice or liberty, but about what it means to be human person. That is the debate the pro-choice side has athletically avoided having. One of the provisions of Texas HB 2, the bill whose clinic standards were thrown out by the Court, was a comprehensive ban on abortions after 20 weeks. Interestingly, the suit brought against Texas did not challenge that provision, and most commentators think that was because the plaintiffs did not expect to win such a challenge. A 20 week ban on abortions, after all, makes compelling political sense, given what modern technology has revealed about human life at that stage.

Punting on the question of personhood and instead creating enemies for Roe v Wade to knock down has indeed been the pro-choice Left’s playbook for quite a while. But how long can it last? How long can a movement that has for so long been drenched in pretense sustain itself? How long until we get the national conversation that we need, the one about the person we see, so clearly, on the ultrasound?

If the nervous laughter of The Daily Show and Planned Parenthood is any indication, it could be coming sooner than we think.

 

Image credit

 

Defining Decency Down

If a horrific act of murder happens somewhere in the world, but you don’t blog within minutes about it, or Tweet about What It All Means…do you still care?

In the week and a half since a young man (I won’t name him. It’s a scandal that we make celebrities out of terrorists and psychopaths) brutally murdered nearly 50 people in an Orlando nightclub, I and many of those close to me have had much to think about. The nightclub was a gay nightclub. The killer obviously targeted a specific community of human beings that particularly offended him, one that he wanted to terrorize. In the era of our media-soaked, clicks-oriented identity politics, the weight of that thought can be hard to feel. Not hard to understand, mind you; hard to feel, to truly have the horror and hatred and vulnerability of such an act reverberate in the soul.

The simple fact is that true empathy is not easy and it’s not instant. That’s an inconvenient truth, but it’s truth. Entering into the sorrow of another–what the Bible calls “bearing one another’s burdens”–is a moral, emotional, intellectual, and interpersonal discipline. It must be practiced. Christians are commanded to bear one another’s burdens because the default setting of the sinful human race is apathy and extreme self-absorption. To have the margins of one’s heart expand to include those with no earthly connection to you, whose well-being or tragedy will probably never intersect (in an economic or relational sense) with your life–that is something serious, and spiritual.

But in the age of Twitter, that kind of measured thinking doesn’t sell. Federal investigators were still among the bodies of victims inside the Pulse nightclub when online pundits started to eviscerate the “silence” of Christians and other religious traditionalists. From Twitter accounts across the country poured forth not just heartache but hellfire and damnation on all those who had failed to live-Tweet their sorrow or confess that they were partially to blame. In the hours and days after we knew what had happened to those people in Florida, the empathy and grief became inextricable from the bitterness and frustration with those who hadn’t grieved the right way, or hadn’t done it fast enough, or had “hid” behind words like “thoughts and prayers” instead of calling for new laws.

Does this sound healthy to you? Does it sound like the response of those who are grieving in a centered, emotionally mature way? Or does it sound more like what we would expect of a generation that doesn’t feel anything until its been siphoned through an online server and processed into pixels?

The danger of the internet has always been the temptation to live life through it, one orbit short of the uncomfortable, offensive, difficult realities of real, flesh-and-blood existence. Social media offers as convincing a replication of actual community as human brains have invented thus far. Many of us carry our community in our pocket, in a smart phone whose soft blue glow has rewired neural pathways and made us anxious and listless when we’re not logged in.

We seem to be at a point in American culture where a good many people seem to think that our online identities are crucial extensions of our moral selves–so crucial, in fact, that whether or not a person is compassionate or caring can be evaluated by a quick glance at their pages. Has this person acknowledged the story that’s on cable news right now in a timely fashion? Have they offered the kind of words that are acceptable for their online medium? If the answer to either of those questions is “No” (or “Unclear”), then they must be shamed. Those are the scales of online justice, and they are absolute and unyielding.

But the greater sadness in all this is not what happens to those who are actually praying or meditating or grief counseling, while others are Tweeting. The greatest sadness is what happens to compassion itself. Contorting social media to be an arbiter of decency doesn’t define social media up nearly as much as it defines decency down. It takes literally no authentic expression of oneself to click the particular combination of letters on a smartphone or keyboard that will garner endorsements (Retweets) or authentications (Likes). That kind of mastery of social media platforms is not a moral progress; it is a marketing skill, one that can be taught and learned and memorized and utilized to make enormous amounts of advertising dollars. Using social media “correctly” is not a character virtue; its a technological achievement.

The outrage directed at those who don’t grieve in the way the internet wants them to grieve does not foster compassion; it fosters hot-takes and the clicks that fund hot-takes. Those who genuinely believe that a Tweet or a Facebook post can be used to measure the rightness or the wrongness of a person’s capacity for love are thinking of love exactly the way that the advertising industry wants them to. Whether we are talking about the age of the billboard or the age of the meme, this idea of love is nothing more than Impulse –> Product –> Satisfaction. It makes for great car commercials and punchy online journalism. It makes for lousy human hearts.

Instead of defining decency down, perhaps more of us should consider adopting this kind of personal rule: When something happens (in the news, in my life, in my feed, etc.) that triggers in me a tremendous desire to express myself online, the time I should spend offline, in silent contemplation, should be directly proportional to the intensity of my desire to post. If I *can’t wait* to get my Tweet out there, I should spend quite a bit of time thinking before I put it out there. If I don’t feel quite alive until my Facebook post goes up, it shouldn’t go up right now. Only when I have a palpable sense of how small and ephemeral social media is, and how foolish I would be to think of it as some immanent layer of my humanity–only then should I share my thought with the online world.

This kind of principle might, just might, help us to keep in mind the difference between social media justice and cosmic justice, between the perfectly-edited compassion of the Good Blogger, and the dirty, costly, divisive compassion of the Good Samaritan.

 

How Christian Music Lost Its Sad Songs

worshipJournalist Leah Libresco discovers that contemporary Christian music always keeps on the sunny side. CCM lyrics, it turns out, are so excessively happy-go-lucky that they rarely even mention the darkness of sin or the pain of human suffering–themes that are pretty important to Christianity.

From Libresco’s piece:

I took a look at the last five years of Billboard’s year-end top 50 Christian songs to see whether Christian pop is unrelentingly cheerful. I looked at pairs of concepts across the entire collection of lyrics (life and death, grace and sin, etc.) and calculated the ratio of positive to negative words. For every pair I checked, positive words were far more common than negative ones.

There were 2.5 times as many mentions of “grace” as “sin” in the songs’ lyrics. Other pairs were even more lopsided: There were more than eight mentions of “life” for every instance of “death,” and “love” was more than seven times as common as “fear.”

If you’ve listened to Christian pop/rock for any amount of time at all, this shouldn’t surprise you. Turn on your local Christian FM station and the odds are good that what you’ll hear will be a distinctly American mixture of therapeutic spirituality and Christianese self-actualization. In other words, there’s nary a difference between most Christian music and most Christian publishing.

Why is this, though? Why does contemporary Christian music fail so egregiously to capture the range of human–heck, Christian!–experience? As Libresco notes, this hasn’t always been true of Christian music. You don’t even have to go back as far as she does to find evidence of a more honest lyrical culture in Christian musicianship.

In 1995, two albums released on Christian record labels went platinum, an unheard-of feat at the time. dc Talk’s Jesus Freak was a grunge-tinged, hip-hop spiced rock record with brazenly vulnerable lyrics. Look at the words of one of the album’s biggest hits, “What If I Stumble?”

Father please forgive me
For I cannot compose
The fear that lives within me
Or the rate at which it grows

If struggle has a purpose
On the narrow road you’ve carved
Why do I dread my trespasses
Will leave a deadly scar?

Here’s another hit, “Colored People,” one of the most well-known CCM songs about race:

We’re colored people, and we live in a tainted place
We’re colored people, and they call us the human race
We’ve got a history so full of mistakes
And we are colored people who depend on a Holy Grace

Ignorance has wronged some races
And vengeance is the Lord’s
If we aspire to share this space
Repentance is the cure.

These songs weren’t just deep cuts that Christian retailers ignored and superfans enjoyed. Both of these songs are some of the most famous performances from the band. You could probably not find anyone who listened to contemporary Christian music in the 90s or early 2000s who didn’t know these choruses by heart.

 

The other album that went platinum in 1995 was the self-titled debut by Jars of Clay. In my opinion, this is one of the finest Christian albums ever made. One reason: The songwriting on Jars of Clay is poetic, introspective and often gut-wrenchingly honest. Is there anyone who can listen to “Worlds Apart” and not think that Dan Haseltine is speaking for them?

I am the only one to blame for this
Somehow it all ends up the same
Soaring on the wings of selfish pride
I flew too high and like Icarus I collide
With a world I try so hard to leave behind
To rid myself of all but love
to give and die.

If you’re an aspiring Christian band recording your first big-label album, a song about child abuse is probably not on your agent’s checklist. But that’s what Jars did with “He,” a painful and hopeful ballad that captures the emotions of abuse from a child’s point of view:

Daddy, don’t you love me?
Then why do you hit me?
And Momma don’t you love me
Then why do you hurt me?
Well I try to make you proud, but for crying out loud
Just give me a chance to hide away

Again, these aren’t artists and songs from the iron vault of Christian music lore. These are two of the most successful groups and albums in the genre’s history. Do these lyrics sound like they would get airplay on today’s “positive, encouraging, and safe for the whole family” airwaves? Or would they be rejected by record label execs and station managers because they don’t immediately affirm the listener’s comfort and pleasure?

So what changed? What’s the difference between the CCM of 1995 and today? I have 2 answers for this:

1) In the last 20 years, Christian music has become less about artists and more and more about the product. You would hard pressed to find people seriously knowledgable about Christian music who would argue that there is any sort of healthy artist culture in the industry right now. Instead, the industry’s goal is to ship music that can morph like an amoeba into any shape that buyers desire–background noise at youth camp, soundtrack to a PowerPoint presentation, etc etc. That’s why so much of CCM sounds alike right now. So much of what’s being created isn’t actually art–it’s musical copy, meant to be accessorized for the sake of maximum profit.

2) In the last 20 years, Christian music’s “least common denominator” theology has stagnated the music. Because contemporary Christian music seeks to serve an incredibly diverse American religious landscape with what amounts to a single industry, the thinking for a long time was that the best way to make the music accessible was to make sure it didn’t actually say anything. Vague generalities about “grace” and “love” could be received by Presbyterians, Methodists, Anabaptists, and 7th Day Adventists alike. The fear of alienating an audience led many Christian groups and labels to mute theology in their songs. Fortunately, this trend was being reconsidered in the early 2000s through a resurgence of hymns; artists like Jars and Caedmon’s Call released successful hymn projects. But much of CCM never turned from this notion, and that’s why groups like Jars still stand out so far from the rest of the industry.

The decline of CCM is something I grieve. I still have somewhere dozens and dozens of CDs from local Christian bookstores, CDs filled with music that I loved. At its best, CCM was a conduit for expressing the complexities of life in the world and yet not of it. Its artists could poignantly elevate audiences to think that Jesus Christ cared about all of life. Somewhere, though, CCM lost its way, and I have trouble believing that the same industry that gave us dc Talk and Jars of Clay can survive.

The Politics of Never Growing Up

Consider for a moment the portrait that is currently emerging of the young American adult.

Let’s begin with college. Despite its many dysfunctions and uncertain economic future, higher education is still considered to be the crucial pivot into adulthood for most American youth. Crippling college debt exists not so much because teens and parents are willing to spend so much on an education, but because they are willing to spend on an education experience. Come for the tuition, stay for the dorm and student life fees.

And what is the college experience nowadays? For insight, we might turn to Nathan Heller’s essay in the latest issue of The New Yorker. He writes from Oberlin University, whose culture and institutional stability is systematically being ripped apart by a student body of 19 year old “activists” who demand instantaneous, sweeping, and authoritarian intervention on a daily basis. Heller is clearly sympathetic to Oberlin’s progressive ethos, and his observations do not incriminate the students as much as they contextualize them. Nevertheless, his essay’s depiction of life at Oberlin—in classrooms to the common areas alike—is terrifying. At one point Heller recounts an incident that epitomizes the school’s culture of ruthless value enforcement:

For years, a campus café and performance space called the Cat in the Cream had a music-themed mural, painted by an alumnus, that celebrated multiculturalism: it featured a turbanned snake charmer, a black man playing a saxophone, and so on. Students recently raised concerns that the mural was exoticizing. “We ended up putting drywall over it, and painting over that,” Robert Bonfiglio, who had been the chair of the Student Union Board, told me. “They were saying, ‘Students are being harmed. Just do something now.’ ” But if individuals’ feelings were grounds to efface art work, he reasoned, every piece of art at Oberlin would be in constant danger of being covered up, or worse—a practice with uncomfortable antecedents. “The fear in class isn’t getting something wrong but having your voice rejected,” he said. “People are so amazed that other people could have a different opinion from them that they don’t want to hear it.”

Heller’s essay is vivid, but the culture he describes at Oberlin is by no means exceptional. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have written, the “coddling of the American mind” is not isolated to a selective slew of elite universities. It is a phenomenon embedded into American higher education at large. There was a time not long ago when college was considered an intellectual sanctuary for coming of age. But for these universities that submit their entire existence to the experiences and felt needs of undergraduates, it is not the students who are expected to grow up, but the institutions themselves. The students are In The Know; it’s the educators that must protect what is already there, not grow it. College has become Never-Never Land.

What about life outside the ivory tower? For this, we might consult some new data from the Pew Center. The headline is self-analyzing: “For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18-34 Year Olds.” Men in particular have become startlingly immobile: More than a third of men aged 18-34 live with parents rather than alone or with a romantic partner.

This kind of existential paralysis isn’t just a matter of changing economic contexts (though that certainly is part of the problem). For men especially, the prolonged delay of marriage and relational commitment often means a perpetual adolescence in other areas of life. Love and sex are arguably the best incentives for men to assert their adulthood and achieve in  life. But in the safety and comfort of mom and dad’s basement, young men get to live out their fantasies without the friction of real life, often turning to porn and video games to give their static lives the imitation of thrill. Growing up is optional.

The basement is Never Land. The university is Never Land. Even dating is Never Land, thanks to Tinder and a hook up culture that eschews commitment with the safety of online anonymity. Pop culture, with its endless fixation on comic books, child fantasy adventures, and nostalgia, is Never Land. Our American landscape is a monument to the heedless pleasures of knowing it all, playing it all, and sexing it all.

C.S. Lewis rebuked the cowardice of secularized modernity. “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise,” he wrote. “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” With apologies to J.M. Barrie, we could say it another way: We tell our Lost Boys to flee to Never Land, and are shocked when they vote for the pirate.