Alt-Right and the Political Crisis of Manhood

I’ve been thinking about this letter from a reader that Rod Dreher published on his blog yesterday. You should read the whole thing, but I’ll sum it up thusly: There may be a connection between the radicalized politics of the “alt-right” and the crisis of millennial American men. According to this reader, our culture’s lost boys aren’t just distracted–they’re being trained in the art of authoritarianism.

A huge swath of man-children who are hooked on hardcore porn and violent video games, feel aimless and emasculated by a society that tells them they are worthless, and have been “raised” in a post-Christian, post-family, absentee-father era, etc…are not a neutral force. Not for the Evil One, they aren’t. Their more base instincts of aggression and violence are merely being subdued and distracted in materialistic hedonism, and their higher instinctual desires for manliness and order can easily be hijacked for nefarious purposes by the some Leader…

I said this to my brother in conversation yesterday: we are a generation with no virtue, no humility, no respect for the sacred or for authority, enslaved to the passions, etc. Such a generation is ripe for being radicalized, were it not for our comfortable distraction in our materialistic hedonism. For the failsons, it’s easier to just keep looking at porn and playing video games. For others, all our SJW outrage is channeled mostly into social media rants and a few actual protests in order to feel morally superior—no one’s actually experiencing injustice, they just think someone else is. But take that all away? Say, with a huge economic meltdown? I’m afraid we will have an entire generation that will be in utter panic and rage, and they will have no residual virtue to fall back on because they were never raised with it to begin with. Hard times will strip a man down to what he’s made of.

I think this is exactly right, and it’s a point I’ve tried to make several times. The “failsons” (one journalist’s word to describe a gaming, pornography-hooked 20something male with an interest in radical politics) are not checking out of life. They’re checking out of civilized society, yes, in the sense that they are checking out of culture’s institutions and social bonds. But they’re not simply asleep. The 24/7 gaming and pornography are liturgical; they shape the consciences and moral imaginations of these men in ways that foster misogyny, authoritarianism, and ressentiment.

I think Rod’s reader makes this connection, but he doesn’t quite follow it far enough. He seems to think that “hedonistic materialism” is actually a barrier to political radicalization. I disagree; I believe it’s a conduit to it. When people are constantly reduced to pixels, whether in a violent shoot-’em-up game or in a pornographic video, the viewer’s ability to empathize at a basic emotional level is thwarted. The cognitive peril of watching, for example, abusive sex acts, is real and serious. Or consider Gamergate, a nauseatingly omnipresent social media uproar that featured communities of male gamers launching vicious sexual and personal insults at female gaming journalists. My point is certainly not that all video gamers become like this, or even that everyone who uses pornography eventually defends abusive ideas. My point is that for a startling number of American men, these two habits make up an enormous part of their waking lives. Why would we be surprised to see a moral imprint?

There is a reason that the overwhelming majority of “alt-right” activists seem to be millennial males. This isn’t a movement without roots. As Rod’s reader perceives, we are seeing the political restlessness of young men whose moral intuitions have been formed by technology intended to titillate and amuse. This isn’t foremost a political moment for white nationalism; it’s a cultural moment for Lost Boy-ism. And it’s a cultural moment that the church can, and absolutely must, speak into.

Millennial dudes (I speak from experience) tend to be protective of their time and their space. The church should invade both. What compulsive gamers and compulsive lusters have in common is that they usually do both alone. There is a strategic isolation that almost always precedes descent into “failson” territory. If you’re an elder of a local church, is there anyone in your congregation that seems to fit this description? Who is falling through the cracks? If your church has more than 3 men aged 17-30, I can almost guarantee at least 1 of them needs you to invade their space.

Intentional discipleship doesn’t happen via podcasts. It happens during coffees and lunches and hangouts. If we as Christians have any interest in speaking up against the racialized, demagogic rhetoric of what calls itself the “alt-right,” we have to go to the source. Not easy. But the stakes couldn’t be higher.

 

What C.S. Lewis Means to Me

Clive Staples Lewis died today, November 22, in 1963. I simply cannot imagine what my life would be like if this man were not a towering figure in it. This past summer I tried to capture a little bit of the debt of gratitude I feel toward him when we gave our newborn son the middle name “Lewis.” One of the great pleasures I have right now is looking forward to telling Charlie Lewis about the professor whose name he bears, and what a wondrous world he let me enter.

I read Lewis for the first time in high school. Mere Christianity hit me like a battering ram of clarity and reasonableness; it gave a logical shape to the faith I (thought I had) inherited from my parents, but which seemed so often to not fit into the world around me. What Lewis gave me in Mere Christianity was not a mere step-by-step proof of Christianity, nor an unassailable list of “defeaters” for atheism. He gave me something infinitely more important: A reason to believe that the claims of Jesus Christ and the New Testament were reasonable and beautiful. Of course, one doesn’t need Lewis to see the self-authenticating glory of the gospel. But by mowing down arguments–especially the snobbish mentality of modernity that Screwtape calls “an inarticulate sense of actuality”–Lewis paved the way in my mind for Christ.

As I look at the influence Lewis has had on me, I see four characteristics that have shaped (or, that I hope shape!) my thinking and my feeling in my life.

1) A gentle absoluteness

Lewis’s work is consistently characterized by a calm, winsome, yet irresistible firm absoluteness. Lewis did not see a conflict between empathy with those who disagree and unyielding conviction that they were wrong. His book Miracles is a wonderful example of his ability to sympathize with the atheist-materialist worldview in a way that gives his case against it a moral and emotional credibility. Of course, much of this comes from the fact that Lewis spent much of his adult life as an unbeliever. I constantly come back to this fact whenever I am gripped, as many Christians are nowadays, by a fear of “wasting my life.” No life that finds Christ, however late and however feebly, is wasted.

2) A love of the written word

Lewis, professor of English, was a master at saying. I don’t just mean he was a master of writing, or even a master at thinking. I mean he was a master of saying. There is a crucial difference between the ability to talk, or write, and the ability to say. Putting one’s thoughts or one’s research on paper is an exercise between a person and the material. But saying involves a third party–the reader, the listener, the neighbor. Lewis’ ability to say–to say meaningful things in beautiful but precise ways–was one of his great gifts, and I’ve tried and will keep on trying to make it my own as long as I may.

3) A humble time for others

If you want to know what Lewis thought of others, perhaps the best thing to show you is this massive, wonderful 3-volume collection of his collected letters. Lewis made a point of responding (where health permitted) to anyone who corresponded with him. The day before he died, Lewis penned a reply to a young admirer who loved the Narnia books. The note, perhaps Lewis’ last ever, perfectly sums up so much about Lewis himself:

There are simply not many people who would advise a world-renowned academic, novelist, and philosopher to spend time on his deathbed responding to children’s fan mail. But Lewis did, and even as I write, his example shames me in my self-centeredness. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2)

4) An ability to see

Lewis could see. He could see the way ideas work together. More importantly, he could see the human condition. He understood that modernity was making a case not only against God, but against the individual. He understood that the Christian life isn’t lived in the “big” moments, but it can most certainly be thwarted in the small ones. He understood that materialism was attractive for an educated, postwar Western culture, but that it had a gaping hole at the center.

He also understood that truth was not, contra the linguistic philosophers, a mere power play by subculture against subculture. It’s sometimes said that Lewis would not have fit in with the fundamentalist evangelicals who love to claim him. That’s probably true. But it’s equally true that he would not have sailed quietly among those progressive revisionists, deconstructing the faith for a “new era.” In the Abolition of Man, Lewis exorciated modern teachers who urged their disciples to “see through” the claims of religion:

“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that a window should be transparent, because the street or the garden beyond is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

That quote has stayed with me since the first time I read it. Is there a better summation anywhere of the folly of learned unbelief?

I sometimes hear it said that the church needs a new C.S. Lewis for today. But that’s not quite right. What the church needs is the old C.S. Lewis of yesterday. And it needs preachers and teachers and moms and dads and children whose souls are shaped by the same transcendent “Joy” that captured Lewis.

I am thankful to C.S. Lewis, and to the Hound of Heaven who chased him–and me– down relentlessly with jealous love.

The True Value of Halloween

A woman once wrote to C.S. Lewis in great distress. It appeared, she said, that England was becoming a very pagan nation. By “pagan”  the woman meant the culture of Britain was reverting back to pre-Christian belief systems of spiritism, idolatry, and nature-worship. She expressed this concern earnestly to professor Lewis to see what analysis or prescription he could give to the state of the nation.

Lewis’s reply was unexpected. “You fear England’s returning to paganism,” he wrote. “Oh that it would!” Lewis explained that, though paganism was false, it was truer than materialism and a much preferable place for a culture to be. A “pre-Christian” culture, Lewis argued, would at least entertain ideas about reality that allowed for the unseen, the metaphysical, and the supernatural. The militant, materialistic atheism of Lewis’s 20th century Oxford had no such upward view.

One of Lewis’s great gifts was pointing that which is so obvious that we probably missed it. Christians have a completely different definition of reality than the rest of the world, but nowhere is the difference more significant than with materialists and philosophical naturalists. The gospel cuts across every rival worldview, whether spiritualistic or agnostic, but for the person who believes that things like resurrections and advents cannot happen in this world, Christianity is totally unintelligible. Christianity doesn’t merely feature the supernatural and miraculous, it demands them. Christianity is an universe in which the otherwordly and metaphysical are not just occasional guests but permanent residents. The Gospel tells us that that the natural world is not the only world; in fact, the natural world isn’t the realest world.

I’m afraid that this fact isn’t just a stumbling block for atheists, but for many Christians as well. This time of year many Americans will be celebrating Halloween. Even as many evangelical Christians have deep concerns with the casual costuming of the demonic and the spiritually dark (and those concerns are valid!), it’s possible that we may have missed an obvious fact: Halloween is one of the few cultural institutions we as a country have left that invites contemplation on the realities beyond our immediate physical world, realities like death, spirits, and evil.

In a way, American thinking about Halloween is more Christian than its thinking about Christmas, a holiday that has been overwhelmingly loaded with secular symbols of youth and and wealth and Western self-satisfaction. What is Santa Claus but a secular savior, a perpetually positive grandfather who stops by once a year to tell you what a good life you are living?

Santa Claus, as a symbol, requires no serious thought about the permanent, the unseen, and the immortal. By contrast, the ghoulish symbols of Halloween may be less “family-friendly” than Santa, but they are grounded much more deeply in fundamental truths about good, evil, and death. There is no jolly old man waiting to give gifts to the good children, either in the North Pole or in heaven. Death, however, is real. Demons are real. Evil is real. In our contemporary society, it’s almost as if the doctrines of Christianity are much more evident in the ghastly images of Halloween than the comfortable, consumeristic images of Christmas.

That is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because, in truth, Christmas is not merely a contrast to Halloween but an answer to it. The deathly realities of October are no match for the advent realities of December. It’s true that evil and death are real, but they are not as real as Immanuel. In Halloween, death takes on flesh. At Christmas, life takes on flesh, as Jesus Christ enters the world to destroy the works of the prince of demons. To lose either of these realities is to filter the gospel through what is ultimately a materialistic, unbelieving lens.

I’m not at all saying that Christians must lose whatever reservations they have about Halloween. After all, if there are indeed spiritual realities in the symbols of Halloween, we must take how we treat such symbols more seriously, not less. There are good reasons to place practical boundaries on ourselves and on our children for how we engage the holiday. And the same is true of Christmas. It is no good to ban Halloween from our families and our churches on account of its darkness, and then celebrate the Christmas season just like our materialistic, legalistic culture. Both Christmas and Halloween have the potential to be nothing more in our lives than monuments to our worship of fun and food. But it doesn’t have to be that way, not if we know the gospel that gives weight and meaning and history and truth to these days.

I’m probably going to see some Christians on Facebook this weekend decry the ugly, offensive symbols of Halloween, and implore parents to remind their children that they must not associate with such things. I won’t protest that. But I do hope that, in an age where most young people grow up to ultimately believe not in ghosts, Holy or otherwise, but mostly in themselves and their own right to self-actualization, we do not despise every opportunity to remind ourselves that life and youth do not last forever.

 

You Get What You Pay For

I didn’t grow up wealthy. My dad was a minister and we were firmly in the “working class” category that economists overuse. When it came to using money, we weren’t free spenders. But I’m thankful that neither did we squelch when a little extra was called for.

This principle came from my dad, who instilled in me a sense that you get what you pay for. If you want something–if you really want it, not just if you want other people to know you have it or want to spend–then that something is worth paying for. So, for example, if you want an MP3 player, and you want one that will actually last for years and is good quality, then it’s worth paying a little extra for the iPod. If you need a new jacket, and you want it to keep you warm for many winters, then it’s worth paying a little extra for one with better and more durable materials. Once you decide that something is worth buying, my Dad thought, then it’s worth buying well, because you get what you pay for. Paying less money for something that isn’t quite as good and won’t last quite as long or won’t do exactly what you’re wanting it to do makes less sense–and is a poorer use of money–than simply waiting.

It seems to me that we live in an era of American culture that is awash in the cheap and unsatisfying. I’m thinking now of entertainment. Think of how streaming services like Netflix and iTunes now dominate the entertainment economy, when just a decade ago most people still frequented brick-and-mortar retailers like Blockbuster. The appeal of Netflix is its cheapness; for $10/month, you can stream hundreds of movies and TV shows at will, without ever leaving your home. You don’t have to be a math major to see how Netflix was successful at this.

But there’s a sense I think in which Netflix (and its musical counterpart, Spotify) is actually the cheaper, less satisfying product. After all, a subscriber to Netflix doesn’t actually own anything. The Netflix collection that he treasures can disappear at any point, for any reason (and often does). Netflix determines what’s watchable and what’s not, and there’s no other Netflix “location” you can visit to see if it has what you’re looking for. What Netflix offers is cheapness and convenience, and in exchange it squelches on availability, selection, and, if we’re being honest, often quality. This relationship isn’t incidental. The ease of Netflix exists because of its flaws, not in spite of it. You get what you pay for.

I’m not just thinking of entertainment here either. We’re only weeks away from a presidential election in the US, and can you imagine an election cycle that more exemplifies the tradeoff between easy and good than this one? Our national politics seems to have fallen squarely in the Netflix trap. We are often drawn to candidates, on either side, who embody identity politics and confirm our worst suspicions about the “other side.” As long as a politician can make us feel correct and victimized, we somehow find ways to ignore serious faults in character, honesty, and personal morality. We want the politics of the easy and the convenient, and are willing to get less quality leadership in return.

This is why it’s important to remember that wanting a better national politic entails a better electorate.  Last week I was sad to hear that a great publication, Books and Culture, was closing. I immediately thought how difficult it is right now to produce high quality writing by high quality writers, when the internet is page after page after page of third-tier, amusing, often trivial content. The concept of writing itself is being defined down by Buzzfeed and social media. What’s the appeal here? It’s all free! It’s all easy! But so little of it is good. You get what you pay for.

Ours is a culture of cheap, low-quality entertainment; cheap, low-quality politics; cheap, low-quality religion; cheap, low-quality education. We are so adapted to the tradeoff between inexpensive and mediocre that we hardly notice it anymore–until, of course, we have nothing else to choose from except the vulgar, the dishonest, and the middlebrow. And at that point, often a point of no obvious return, we lament, “How on earth did we get here?”

I’m not sure what the answer is. But I have a feeling it starts with taking Philippians 4:8 seriously. What if obedience to Christ and the renewal of our minds means that we submit even our money to the pursuit of that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and praiseworthy? Faithfulness to this command may not be as convenient as we might think. It may look less like an instant streaming service or a listicle, and more like a trip to the video store and a well-edited magazine. Want the good, the true, and the honorable? You get what you pay for.

 

 

Eaten By Lions, Facebook Style

What does Proverbs 22:13 have to do with social media, politics, and conservative evangelicals?

The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!”

Now, you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Old Testament to know that waking up near a lion was not an unheard of event in the life of an average ancient Israelite. David, the father of Solomon, lived among lions daily while tending sheep. So what the sluggard says in this Proverb isn’t far fetched. He’s not talking about Bigfoot or an asteroid.

What makes the sluggard’s trepidation laziness is the reason why he’s saying it. The sluggard is using the fear of a lion to justify his refusal to leave his tent or get out of bed. A lion could appear; but the actual probability, the reality or unreality of a lion, isn’t the point. The point is getting out of work. That’s what makes the sluggard a sluggard.

In other words, sometimes people will say things, and the things they say aren’t really the point. Whether something is true or untrue or half-true is immaterial. The point is what the suggestion of the Something means for the sayer. It creates noise and confusion that benefits the person saying it, and in the end, that’s what matters.

Over the past couple of years I have watched in frustration as evangelical friends, many of whom I respect a great deal, have trafficked in some of the most wild, ridiculous, and silly conspiracy theories that money can buy. Facebook seems to be our cultural HQ for conspiracyism. Many times I’ll see a Facebook friend post a link from a website and I don’t even have to click it to evaluate; the website will be a known fabricator, or even a self-described parody, and I’ll know without looking that this otherwise intelligent, reasonable person has been duped yet again. These links almost always purport to show something incredibly scandalous that the “mainstream media” (a term that usually applies to any source that doesn’t happen to back up this particular story) is suppressing.

Do major media outlets put lids on news stories that interfere with an ideological or political agenda? Absolutely, and Planned Parenthood is very thankful. But for the conspiracy circles of Facebook, this reality is used as a trump card to sell the most hallucinogenic fantasies that an over-politicized mind can dream up–hidden microphones, secret stepchildren, etc etc, ad nauseum.

A few days ago I happened to notice that a friend linked to a column by Ross Douthat. Douthat is one of the country’s most articulate and most intellectually sturdy political commentators, and he happens to be a well-known conservative. This column made some critical remarks about the Republican party and their candidate for president. They were criticisms made, of course, in a context of conservatism; whether one agrees with Douthat or not, it is an objective fact that his analysis comes from a worldview that is fundamentally conservative.

My friend’s post attracted some comments, and one in particular stood out. This commenter was offended by Douthat’s critiques, and offered his explanation of why the columnist must have made them: He was a liberal mole, hired by the New York Times to prop up the illusion of having a conservative op-ed writer.

I got a headache doing the mental gymnastics required to believe that this was a serious comment from a serious person. The suggestion runs afoul of virtually everything you can read from Mr. Douthat’s career. It is an assertion made in gross neglect of every objective fact and shred of evidence. It was, nonetheless, this brother’s chosen theory of why a conservative would choose to find any fault whatsoever in the Republican party.

This comment bothered me. How could this person, a Christian by all appearances, traffic in such delusions? How could a person who presumably believes in absolute truth be willing to contort the reality in front of him to fit his political narrative? That was when it dawned on me: This is a “Lion in the street!” moment. What matters right now is not the entirety of Douthat’s writing, nor the many evidences of his political philosophy. What matters is the mere possibility that a grand conspiracy could be afoot. What matters is the angst and dread that comes from the slightest chance that we are being played for fools by “media elites.”

The appeal of conspiracy theories is that they offer a counterintuitive kind of comfort: If the conspiracy is real and if the deck really is stacked against me, then that means that the world is fundamentally not my fault. I am right about the way things should be; in fact, that’s the way things really are! The problem is that these people in power over me are using every waking hour to keep me in the dark. Change is impossible because it’s not in my hands. Life can go on as normal.

That’s precisely what the sluggard does. It’s true that lions exist. It’s also true they can come up into the camp. But every available piece of evidence–every modicum of reality at the moment–says there’s no lion outside. The sluggard knows this. But he wants to stay in bed. If he stays in bed instead of going to work merely because he feels like it, then people will shame his sloth. If, on the other hand, he stays in bed because he doesn’t want to get eaten–well, that’s just choosing the lesser of two evils.

The Purifying Effect of Pleasure

One of my favorite parts of The Screwtape Letters is a section from the senior demon Screwtape, advising his “junior tempter” Wormwood to make sure that the human he is attempting to divert from God doesn’t cultivate many personal pleasures:

I myself would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if is something quite trivial such as a fondness for country cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the word, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food,” the “important” books. I have known  a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

In other words: The more a person learns to love things because they are lovely to him, and not because they make him look better or advance his sense of ego, the closer they are to a true kind of humility. The man who loves every film that all his friends seem to like too may not actually be loving the art itself, he may be loving the satisfaction that comes when his peers authenticate his loves. In this instance, the object of love is not the film, nor even really his friends, but himself.

It may sound at first like Lewis is urging a kind of individualistic self-assertion. But that’s not true. What Screwtape dreads to see is not an isolated, self-focused, contrarian human existence (on the contrary, such ground is fertile for demonic success). What Screwtape fears is a human who finds genuine pleasure in things that do not rebound to his own glory. In this kind of moment of authentic delight, a person experiences a crucial reality of the kingdom of God: The things that bring the most happiness are the things that bring us out of ourselves.

The Italian poet Dante interestingly differentiated between a lustful love of the other, and a love of the self. In the Inferno, unrepentant adultery is punished in hell, but it is punished less severely than other kinds of human passion. Why? Because even sexual immorality with a lover requires a sort of surrendering of the self to the other. It is the “self-lovers” who are closer to the bottom of hell, because their sin is both rebellion against God and a violent disregard of that which is outside themselves.

In our contemporary Western culture, such a strong condemnation of self-oriented love sounds not just absurd, but outrageous. Ours is a therapeutic age that encourages us to live hyper-introspectively, continually discerning “who we are,” “what we want,” and most importantly, “what we deserve” out of life. The mantra of the 21st century is “Only God can judge me,” and in an age of murky religious pluralism everyone knows that God is really a euphemism for oneself.

My generation has no trouble encouraging individualism. The age of Netflix and Spotify is, if nothing else, the reign of the individual, with full power for selectivity and customization without any fear of ever being unable to satisfy preexisting tastes. But that’s not the kind of pleasure that Lewis is talking about. Lewis is not talking about individualistic pleasure, but personal pleasure. Individualistic pleasure seeks to hide from others to protect itself; personal pleasure does not hide, but neither does it demand to be the center of attention. It’s a contentment with what Lewis elsewhere called the “quiddity” of life–a real thankfulness and wonder at the universe, and a recognition of a great Giver.

Cultivating pleasures and interests that we can enjoy alone helps to protect against the instinct to always measure ourselves against others. Enjoying a favorite book that no one would give us props for reading allows to take delight in something truly outside ourselves, to forget ourselves for a moment and receive a gift. Making time for hobbies that won’t improve our resume or get us “Likes” on Instagram helps us to make sure that our personal formation isn’t merely an effort to gain approval and, thus, a sense of self-actualization.

It is fascinating to reflect that even though our modern age enables and incentives “me time,” so much of that time is meant to ultimately rebound in social approval. Perhaps one reason so many modern Americans find their “me time” dissatisfying is that they actually don’t do it well enough. By living life preoccupied by what’s most Tweetable or makes for the most compelling Facebook post, many of us don’t ever actually cultivate habits of rest and contentment. Even our R&R is mostly about working to get approved.

What Lewis prescribes here is, I think, supremely important in a digital age. Looking for joy in things that don’t come back to you in the form of praise or admiration is a spiritual practice. It could very well be that the price of digital distraction will be a widespread inability to really love anything, just an instinct to click, “Like,” and keep swiping. We should heed the words of Lewis’s fictional demons, and learn the freedom of personal, self-forgetful pleasure again.

Atheism Is Not Endearing

While looking for something else, I stumbled across this quote from the actor/atheist Hugh Laurie.

I find my atheism is becoming more marked with each passing year. I once prided myself on a relaxed and respectful attitude to other people’s beliefs, but I’m finding it harder to keep that up. I might find myself taking a tougher line with people about certain beliefs that are so painfully nonsensical. Because nonsense is not endearing or eccentric anymore – it’s causing death, destruction, and endless torment for millions of people around the world.

What’s funny to me about this is that it describes perfectly my own attitude toward atheism. When I was an undergraduate I thought atheists were generally intellectual powerhouses who had serious and meaningful challenges to the existence of God. Or, perhaps they were deep thinkers who had endured such awful tragedy in their personal life, that no other narrative except unbelief could offer a reassuring explanation of their suffering. For a long time this was the idea that I had about the “skeptics” and the teachers they so enthusiastically emulated.

But over the last couple of years, I too have experienced a shift  from a “relaxed and respectful attitude,” and exactly for the reasons that Laurie mentions: The stakes are too high and the effects of this worldview are too toxic. Contrary to what my undergraduate self imagined, I have discovered that more than a few self-described “skeptics” remain skeptics chiefly because they have taken exhaustive efforts to never be challenged in this regard. The number of atheists I’ve met and corresponded with who will admit to not knowing one historic argument for the existence of God, or not having one acquaintance with a believer who can seriously argue his case, is astonishing.

Beyond this, I’ve seen that the intellectual case for atheism, which I had believed to be so formidable, is not just irreparably deformed from a logical perspective, but also from a humane one as well. To read the latest and most popular volumes of skepticism from people like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins is to confront an intellectual system that is nakedly bankrupt in moral and aesthetic value. The efforts of “scientism” to explain away the transcendent phenomenon of beauty, and the personal experience of the numinous, is nothing less than a project to sweep the legs out from under hope and human freedom. The fruits of such a belief system are evident, too: Atheism is the undisputed ruler of the internet, but it reigns alongside the most twisted forms of pornography and human degradation imaginable. There is a reason that Reddit and 4Chan are bastions of sophomore skepticism on one wing, and factories of sexual nihilism and abuse in the other.

I’ve lost my patience with atheism, but I hope I haven’t lost my patience with atheists. I still enjoy very much talking about these things with the unconvinced. And, of course, as a Christian, I have an eschatological motivation in those conversations. But as Laurie succinctly said, I don’t find the whole thing endearing anymore. There’s just too much, and too many, to be saved from it.

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Did Gandalf Rescue Evangelicals?

Yesterday afternoon I was watching the live stream of the 2016 ERLC National Conference. Specifically, I tuned into a panel that discussed how evangelicals could engage with art in a gospel-centered way. In the course of the conversation, one of the panelists, Alissa Wilkinson (a film critic that you should read), remarked that, in her view, evangelical attitude toward art has notably improved over the last 10 years.

I agree with that. Having grown up in conservative evangelical culture my entire life, I absolutely have noticed a change in how many pastors, theologians, and those in Christian circles have talked about film, literature, TV, etc. There just seems to be a greater interest right now in talking about art from a Christian perspective than there was when, say, I was in junior high, and buying the “kids versions” of the Left Behind books and the albums of rock bands that were openly marketed as “mainstream alternatives.”

But Wilkinson’s comment got me thinking: What changed? What happened with evangelicals roughly 10 years ago that set these trends in motion? Here’s a theory: Peter Jackson happened. The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is, I believe, the most influential factor in the renewal of American evangelicalism’s interest in art.

The Fellowship of the Ring premiered in December of 2001. The timing of that release is important, because just a few weeks before FOTR, the first film version of the Harry Potter novels also premiered. Up to this point, Harry Potter was the most significant literary event in the world, and evangelicals had spent most of their time and energy debating whether it was even permissible to read/watch. There was precious little “engagement” with the biggest book of the century; it just fell, like so many other things did, into trenches of evangelical “Do or Don’t” war.

But when Fellowship debuted, evangelicals were flummoxed. Here was a PG-13 adaptation of a novel written by a traditional Catholic in the latter half of the 20th century. I had never heard of J.R.R. Tolkien when I saw the movie in December 2001, and neither had most of my family or friends. But enough Christians knew about the books to herald the coming of the movies as a significant moment for believers and Hollywood.

There was, of course, an irony here. Many of the influential evangelical publications that had urged believers to avoid the wizardry of Harry Potter took a starkly different approach to Gandalf. The dissonance was unmistakeable. World Magazine, which had studiously criticized the Potter books, preemptively advertised Fellowship as a “family-friendly blockbuster” that Christians should be interested in (and so too with the next two Lord of the Rings movies). Plugged In (Focus on the Family’s media review publication) threw red flags all over Hogwarts, but saw Tolkien’s “Christian themes at work” in Jackson’s films. The difference was, of course, that Tolkien spoke openly about his Catholic faith, while in the evangelical world, you could occupy your day reading chain emails with conspiracy theories about J.K. Rowling’s intentions. Unlike the Potter phenomenon, a lot of believers saw in the Lord of the Rings movies an opportunity to see their “values” on the screen.

The effects were immediate. Lord of the Rings was an enormous financial success, of course, fomenting new trends in cinema and a wave of religiously tinged “prestige pictures.” But more than that, the movies started something in evangelicals. Suddenly it seemed that Reformed Christians everywhere were putting fantasy books on their favorite lists. Shortly after the Lord of the Rings movies my own Bible college made the books required reading. Even Hogwarts started to fare better, with later installments of the film series getting positive reviews in many evangelical outposts. It wasn’t that evangelicals’ convictions had changed, necessarily; it was that Jackson’s movies had broken down barriers between faith and imagination that many American evangelicals didn’t even realize had gone up.

Just a theory, but this does seem to match my own experience as far as when I noticed a new evangelical engagement with popular art. It’s just not possible for me to imagine a round of Christian think pieces on something like Netflix’s “Stranger Things” 15 years ago. Now, it seems so inevitable that it’s actually good parody. Something had to happen for that to be the case.

In my view, Gandalf happened.

A Few Thoughts on “Purity Culture”

I’ve been trying over the last couple years to keep in tension two things that I believe are equally true.

The first is: Many of evangelical culture’s ideas about sexuality, marriage, and relationships have borne bad fruit. I’ve heard from many people who, like me, were raised in a conservative evangelical context, but unlike me, were exposed to a grievously harsh and legalistic theology that shamed, alienated, and wounded them. Even though my own personal experience growing up in conservative evangelicalism was much better, these testimonies are not a conspiracy. There really is a heartbreaking legacy that many Christian churches passed onto the young people in their care, and it’s a legacy that has done incalculable damage to the kingdom.

Many of the men and women who suffered under this kind of legacy have given it a name. “Purity culture” may be something of a misnomer, but most people who were raised in it know what you’re talking about immediately when you mention it. Many who were preteens and teens in evangelical churches were an oppressive “purity culture” was practiced are now actively opposing it as adults, which, I think, is a testimony to how genuine the toxic effects have been.

The second truth I hold is this: Many (not all) of the critiques that are launched at “purity culture” could be (and often are) applied more generally to traditional evangelical doctrine writ large; thus, in many cases (not all), criticism of a legalistic “purity culture” within the church is also a meta-criticism of orthodox Christianity’s teaching on sexuality.

In other words, it is often difficult for me to read a blog post that excoriates evangelical purity culture, and discern where the criticism of legalism ends and the criticism of the Bible’s teachings on sex begin. Sometimes the testimony of a harsh, un-Christian, and even abusive church culture is so obvious that denouncing it is easy and essential. On the other hand, sometimes it is not clear to me that what the person is describing as oppressive “purity culture” is meaningfully different than what Christians have believed about gender, sex, and marriage for two thousand years. Thus, affirming the dangers of purity culture in that context may double as affirming the wrongness of, say, the Bible’s clear teaching about sex outside of marriage, or the need to flee sexual immorality, or the sinfulness of same-sex sexual relationships .

A good example of where I have difficulty untangling this knot is the angst that I see many people having over Joshua Harris’s “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” If you have no idea what that book is, feel free to stop reading now and move on to something more relevant. But if the title “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” triggers a lot of memories, feelings, and or even just interest in you, then you and I probably experienced much of the same “purity culture.” The short version of the story is that IKDG was a hugely influential book that advocated what some might call a “courtship” approach to Christian relationships, over and against what you might call a “dating” approach. Harris was a young, single Christian when he wrote the book, and his ideas–the dangers of “casual” dating, the need to “guard one’s heart” in all relationships, etc.–were widely approved and disseminated in conservative evangelical culture.

That was in the mid to late 90s. Now, a growing number of the teens whose youth groups made IKDG required reading are rethinking the book’s effect on them. To which I say: Me too! I’ve seen firsthand what an overly timid, emotionally paralyzed group of young Christian singles looks like, and it ain’t pretty. I remember reading IKDG and thinking that Harris oversimplified a lot, seemed to be speaking to too many situations at once, and honestly, just seemed to be laying down a law where a principle of wisdom would suffice.

So yes, I sympathize very much with the struggles of anyone whose worldview of dating and marriage was formed primarily by IKDG.

But after reading Ruth Graham’s piece on Harris and the book in Slate, I feel like I’ve once again been transported from empathy and agreement to untangling a knot. It’s really tough for me to read the bloggers Graham mentions and not feel like Harris and IKDG are really being used as a convenient lightning rod for what is actually a full-throated dispute with Christianity’s most basic teachings about sex and marriage.

I appreciate that Harris himself seems to be walking back some of the things he wrote in the book. That’s an admirable thing to do that most authors, evangelical or otherwise, wouldn’t do. But, as Graham notes matter-of-factly, the most vociferous critics of IKDG aren’t taking “I’m sorry” for an answer. They want something more from Harris, and from the “purity culture” at large. This is where the knot tightens: The more time I spend reading these young writers, the more I am convinced that the “Anti-Purity Culture” genre is about more than righting wrongs. It’s about righting the wrong faith.

Here’s what I mean. This is an excerpt from Graham’s piece, and it bubbles with the underlying tensions I’ve been describing

I was 17 when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out, and everyone I knew in my upper-middle-class evangelical community in suburban Chicago was talking about it. For me as a teenager, the whole topic had a pleasing ratio of certainty to ambiguity. The foundational “fact” of purity culture was that having intercourse before marriage was wrong. There was a reassuring black-and-white quality to that stricture, with the promise of a juicy wedding-night reward for my self-control.

Everything about this paragraph is fascinating. The word “fact’ in scare-quotes (is having intercourse before marriage wrong…really?); the description of Harris’ belief in pre-marital abstinence as a “black-and-white stricture.” Note that Graham isn’t even talking about IKDG’s practical rules for dating, which are certainly open to critique. She’s talking about Harris’s underlying worldview of what sexuality is for. In this critique, the fundamental fault lines within Harris’s “purity culture” start here.

Why does this matter? It matters because confessional, orthodox evangelicals have a moral obligation to correct where the “purity culture” has abused, shamed, and alienated. We have a vested interest in holding the truth with love, in preaching a gospel where Jesus died and rose again, not so that our sex lives could be spotless but so that we could be accepted by God when they’re not. There is a moral imperative on evangelical Christians to teach what the Bible says about sexuality through a lens of redemption and wholeness, not through a lens of “Don’t mess this up or you’ll regret it.”

But at the same time, how can we do this if the voices setting the agenda are ones that fundamentally reject what Christianity teaches about the ultimate meaning of sex, marriage, gender, and even love? Healing those who were wounded by oppressive legalism and graceless shaming requires healing them with something, and that “something” has to be more than a narrative of autonomy and self-authentication. Trading in the purity culture for the hook-up culture isn’t a win.

We can do better than “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Harris would agree. But we can’t do better if, seeking to restore what the locust destroyed, we plant snakes instead of bread. What Jesus teaches us about our bodies is beautiful, even if our stewardship of it has been anything but.

 

Pandering to Millennials

My friend and Mere Orthodoxy editor Jake Meador linked to this blog post on Twitter, and the following couple of paragraphs are too good to not share:

The other day I read another of those articles that irritate me. The ones about how the church is failing millenials (sic) by being terribly outdated, and how it needs to modify it’s message to appeal to the younger, hipper crowd…

Look, I am a millenial, albeit on the side of that demographic in danger of being too old to count as the current “it” age group. And I can tell you exactly how to get millenials in your pews. You tell them that their moms and dads were horribly wrong and misguided, and that they are actually much better informed and more correct than their parents. Just like they’ve always suspected. And then you explain that, actually, Christianity is exactly what all the cool people they want to like them say it should be. And they will come, because that is a brand that sells. Who doesn’t want their youthful arrogance stroked and the social cost of their faith removed?

This is incredibly important. The author isn’t lobbing grenades at millennials, by the way; he’s criticizing instead the people who’ve industrialized a superiority complex, the same one that attends every generation, in order to gain members. Millennials are not the only young adults in history to want to hear how much smarter they are than their parents. But they very well may be the first generation to actually be pandered to in this way by institutional Christianity.

It’s true when we’re talking about church, and it’s doubly true when we’re talking about Christian culture. How much blog content in the evangelical world falls under the category of, “Personal Narrative of How I Realized That My Parents/Church/Mentors Were Wrong About _______”? Of course, many of these stories are true and helpful. But quite a few of them read as if the entire point of having these kind of discoveries isn’t to find truth, but to relish the joy of finding out the old fogies were in error.

When I think about my generation of Christians, the biggest concern I have is not that we will wholesale abandon orthodoxy or the local church. Jesus will build his body and not even the gates of social media can overcome that. No, my biggest concern is that the we millennials will construct the idea that ours is a “chosen generation,” that the saints who came before us are obstacles to be hurdled and those who come us after will look pretty much like we do. My fear is that even in all the gospel-centered gospel-centeredness, the impulse within American evangelicalism to pander to the generation that currently defines cool will relapse us into a cultural captivity, one that may not be as obvious as fundamentalism but may be deeper and darker.

Here’s an idea. For every article you read this week on why the older generation of evangelicals was totally wrong about X, read 3 things written 100+ years ago. For every TED Talk you listen to, listen to 2 more sermons by a preacher who probably doesn’t own a smartphone. Preach to yourself that what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” must be avoided at all costs. Immerse yourself in the timeless and be moderate with the contemporary.