The Problem of Public Profanity

Rod Dreher writes about a disappointing, blue-tongued concert from Adele:

I am not a prude about language, as my male friends will attest. But there is a time and a place for that kind of talk, and onstage at The Royal Albert Hall is not it, at least not if you are a gorgeous singer of pop ballads like Adele. Her fans didn’t seem to mind it at all, to be clear, but every time she dropped an f-bomb, I kept thinking, You are so beautiful, so enormously talented, such a gifted artist, and here you are, in The Royal Albert Hall, a high temple of musical performance, in a moment of  complete triumph, and … this is how you talk? 

It didn’t make me mad, really, only sad for her, and for a popular culture that doesn’t know how to behave in a place like The Royal Albert Hall, or anywhere else that’s not a rodeo arena, pretty much. Can you imagine being elderly Adele, looking back on a career of fame and accomplishment, screening your performance at The Royal Albert Hall for your grandchildren, and having to listen to your younger self, speaking like that?

Not long ago I was flipping through a major news magazine, the kind that middle schoolers would be expected to consult in a research or current event project. An article in this magazine printed, without obfuscation, an explicit profanity. My feeling of surprise wasn’t at the word itself; I wasn’t scandalized that people would use such a term. What did take me off guard was the editorial decision to print it. Did the magazine simply assume its readers eyes would bounce off the profanity like they bounced off the prepositions? Did the editors not have a sense that this word was not fit for this space? Was it that they felt this epithet was just like any other word–or were the pages of the magazine just like any other space?

Like Rod, I am not easily offended by language. But I have to agree with him that we’ve lost a sense of the impropriety of public profanity.

As a Christian, I know that I’ll be held accountable for every word that I speak, and I believe that words have intrinsic power either toward love or toward sin. I’m not interested though in foisting a Christian doctrine of speech on my neighbors, and to that end, I would submit that there is most certainly a difference between how a group of friends sitting at a restaurant talk to one another, and how those people would talk amongst strangers in public. I’m not for policing speech, just neighborliness.

That, I think, is the main issue with public profanity. People who don’t care about what others hear from them are really not caring about others. I know that profanity is common in a lot of places, and that most people you’ll hear while pumping gas or buying groceries probably don’t have a hang up about bad words. But someone’s being accustomed to four letter bombs doesn’t excuse them from neighborliness anymore than someone’s being accustomed to cruel joking absolves them from being a jerk.

How we speak in public is an issue of neighborliness because words have meaning and power. We all believe this instinctively, which is why, when we meet someone for the first time, there’s an innate desire to get our language correct. If a new acquaintance tells you she is a substitute teacher, and you subsequently refer to her as a “temp,” you are being un-neighborly with your language. The words we choose, especially in public, convey our sense of moral and social responsibility. A “potty mouth” isn’t just a quirky temperament; it’s a deficiency in kindness.

I also don’t think we can comfort ourselves that “nobody is offended.” I think there’s more offense taken than is often revealed. At a previous job, two of my coworkers with desks close to me relished telling each other stories and jokes loaded with four-letter saltines. As far as I can remember, I never once complained or asked them to stop, even though I find their weekly dialogue incredibly rude. I didn’t want drama, and in any way I didn’t want to be “that guy.” I have to believe this happens quite a bit.

This isn’t being a “prude.” If pointing out the obnoxiousness of public swearing irritates some, could it be because we have made our speech just one more extension of our utterly autonomous selves? If repairing our fractured, dis-empathetic public square is a problem worth solving, maybe it would be good to start with our own mouths. It’s not about “legalism” or even sheltering children. It’s about caring enough about those around us to not dare them to listen to us.

10 Questions For Buzzfeed

After reading Buzzfeed’s “expose” on the evangelical teachings of the church that evangelicals Chip and Joanna Gaines attend, I have a few questions for Buzzfeed, Kate Aurthur (the writer of the piece), and for publications that do this kind of thing:


1. How many evangelical Christians do you personally know? How many evangelical Christians are employed by your company? If the answer to either of these questions is “None,” why do you believe that is?

2. Why, in your opinion, would your readers want to know what the pastor of the Gaines family preaches about sexuality? Based on what you know of your readership, how are your consumers likely to respond to a piece like this?

3.  As a journalist, what is your hope for this piece? Would you hope that it results in the Gaines losing their show? Publicly disowning their pastor? Receiving a public outcry? If none of these, what?

4. Which do you consider more journalistically noteworthy: The belief that all who do not worship Jesus Christ will eventually be in hell, or the belief that sex is meant only for a man and a woman in marriage? If the first, why is that not the story here? If the second, why is this teaching more significant than the first?

5. Do you believe that people who have the same religious convictions as Jim Seibert are capable of having genuine friendships with those who disagree with them?

6. As the piece notes, many people, including LGBT Americans , watch Fixer Upper. Why do you think this is?

7. Does this piece necessarily reflect an editorial position of Buzzfeed? If not, should HGTV feel like they are being represented by the religious beliefs of the Gaines?

8. Would Buzzfeed (or Cosmopolitan) be willing to publish a perspective on this story by a person such as Wesley Hill or Eve Tushnet? If not, why not?

9. Would Buzzfeed fire a staffer for expressing beliefs similar to Jim Seibert? Would Buzzfeed fire a staffer not for expressing such beliefs, but upon discovering the staffer attended a religious gathering that taught them? In your opinion, does being wrong on LGBT make one a bad person?

10. If Chip Gaines, Joanna Gaines, Jim Seibert, or another evangelical Christian asked you why they or their family and friends should trust what they read reported in Buzzfeed, what would you say?

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.

 

Rowling In the Deep

I have plans to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them later today. Before I do, though, I want to reiterate a version of something I’ve said several times before in this space: Regardless of how good Fantastic Beasts is, and how much I enjoy it (which, based on reviews from people I trust, may be quite a lot), I think its existence is, for the most part, a mistake, and something that sincere fans of J.K. Rowling’s work will regret in years to come.

Right now, American pop culture is absolutely trapped in a hyper-nostalgia. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned that this isn’t just a fad or a phase. Rather, it looks more like a philosophical shift in how culture makers produce stories, and how we as an audience consume them. As A.O. Scott has written, so much of our film, TV, and literature appeals to childlikeness–not childlike wonder, mind you, but childlike sense of identity. Critical conversations about meaning and narrative are being thrown aside in what Scott has called the “ascendancy of the fan,” the transformation of mainstream pop culture into a mere collection of constantly rebooted brands: Marvel vs DC, Star Wars vs Star Trek, Bourne vs Bond, etc etc, ad infinitum.

I’ve said all this before, and I’m not going to restate my many comments here. But I want to very briefly apply these concerns to Rowling and to the Harry Potter universe. I have two reasons. First, I love the Potter series and have an especial affection and admiration for it. Second, I think what Rowling is doing with her legacy is the most glaring example we have of the danger of the reboot nostalgia culture.

The Harry Potter series (books 1-7) will, I’m convinced, be read widely with delight centuries from now. A few days ago I drew the wrath of Twitter when I declared that the Potter books were, taken as a whole, better than Lewis’s Narnia series. I stand by that. That’s not a dig at Narnia, either; I just believe that the Potter series is that good, and that its genius will only be greater appreciated in the years to come.

Part of that genius is in the story’s ending. I won’t spoil it (if you haven’t read the series, I envy the joy you will take in reading it for the first time), but the best way I can put it is that Rowling ended her tale with a beautiful and poetic symmetry that brought her characters a genuinely satisfying closure. At the last turn of the page in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there is an eschatological joy in seeing good triumph over evil in a final, authoritative way.

What Rowling has done in the years since Deathly Hallows is more than marketing. She has sought to open up her mythology in a way that keeps the story going eternally. This was the point of Pottermore, a website that put users into the wizarding world through interactive content–content written by Rowling (as the ads for Pottermore made a point of repeating over and over again). Rowling’s involvement in Pottermore was clearly a pitch to fans that the story hadn’t ended, that the world was still being written and that by signing up for the service, they could be part of the new stories.

Rowling’s intentions became even more clearer with the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Officially, the hardback copy that was sold in Barnes and Noble was simply the published script of a stage play, based on the Potter series. *Unofficially* (and again, in marketing), it was quite obviously the 8th book of the series. I never read the book, but my wife excitedly did. She was extremely disappointed, telling me that the characters of Cursed Child spoke and acted like fan fiction creations, not the heroes of books 1-7. Several reviews I saw echoed this sentiment.

The reviews for Fantastic Beasts have been much more positive, and I fully expect to enjoy it. But the pattern that Rowling has established thus far seems clear. The world of Harry Potter has been reopened, and its mythology has broken out of its original fate and is being written, and rewritten, and written again. It is, for all practical purposes, now a piece of fan fiction.

Fan fiction exists to let fans live inside their favorite stories. But one of the defining marks of all great stories is the way they live inside of us. What I fear is happening to Harry Potter is that a wonderful, beautiful piece of literature is becoming a cultural artifact to our inability to let stories teach us about this world and this life. The lessons we can draw from Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in danger of becoming lost in the constant reinvention of their world. By not letting our favorite stories end, we turn them into tools rather than teachers–objects that authenticate our childlike desire to not let go, to not courageously follow Harry outside the safety and comfort of our magical world, and into a dangerous, wild place where we have a job to do.

I want very much for succeeding generations to know the Harry Potter series as a brilliantly told, biblically haunted epic, not as another resource for Dungeons and Dragons devotees. My fear is that even in well-made films and interesting books, Harry’s lessons are lost, and we will be entertained and distracted at the cost of something precious.

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.

 

 

InterVarsity

In reflecting on InterVarsity’s recent decision, two things occur to me.

The first is that critics of the decision need to realize that, even though fealty to IV’s evangelical doctrinal heritage was clearly the decisive factor here, it wasn’t conservative evangelicalism that forced this kind of move. Rather, the political and cultural pressure has been coming from Obergefell champions and theological revisionists. Consider that a couple years ago the organization was “de-recognized” by the California State University system, because of its policy requiring members to hold to a New Testament ethic of sexuality. Progressive columnists praised California for enforcing its ideology and mocked evangelical concern that such a move represented a hostile posture toward historic Christian doctrine. Fast forward to this past summer’s showdown between the Golden State and Biola University, and the reality is unmissable: Organizations and institutions, no matter how much they serve students and taxpayers, are subject to sexual revolutionary tests.

What this means is that InterVarsity was given a choice, not by evangelical subculture, but by the cultural headwinds: Either you can curry favor with states like California by adopting doctrines on marriage and gender that run afoul of your history, your heritage, and your mission, or you can risk alienating some students, staff, and the right side of history, for the sake of the right side of the faith. That was a choice given to them by one side, not the other, and not both.

Second, it seems pretty clear to me that InterVarsity didn’t make this decision because they wanted to “win.” If you were a person in charge of making sure that IV had political protection, sufficient funding, and great PR in the next few decades, would you have advised them to adopt this policy? Of course not. And this is important because it gets to the heart of what many progressive evangelicals accuse traditionalists of–namely, exploiting the culture war for gain. For years, mainline Protestants and others have argued time and time again that conservative evangelical institutions thrive when they play culture war. Thus, it is reasoned, we have an obsession over issues like homosexuality and abortion, rather than mercy and justice, because the former are politically profitable and the latter are not.

But can anyone with a shred of intellectual responsibility look at the cultural and political landscape that InterVarsity finds itself in, and argue that they are engorging themselves on wedge issues? One point that needs to be said repeatedly is that by adopting a formal policy, InterVarsity is showing its LGBT and affirming students and staff that it has no interest in profiting from their confusion. I’m sure this is a difficult time for some who love InterVarsity, but by playing both ends against the middle, never saying anything certain but always nodding a head in both directions–is that really a better culture for InterVarsity to build for those on opposite sides of this theological divide?

You may disagree vehemently with InterVarsity. But what everyone, regardless of conviction, should agree on is that we have here an example of people who are selling out to principle. Right or wrong, truth or fiction–that’s worthy of respect, and also worthy of a moment of grief for a society that so often encourages the opposite.

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.

The Phone and His Boy

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

“I Used To Be a Human Being.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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