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.

Thoughts on Being a Dad

The other day a friend asked what I thought of being a new Dad. My answer was immediate: “It’s the best thing ever.” That wasn’t a lapse into kidspeak, either. I meant it literally. In my 28 years of life, I’ve never felt my heart glow warmer and brighter than it has for the last three months. My baby son has brought joy into our family’s home that we simply didn’t know existed. People told me it would be like that. I believed them, at least as much as you can believe people who tell you the Grand Canyon is amazing before you’ve actually stood before its ancient crevices.

I’m glad, too, that my son was born in 2016. If I’m being honest, I do worry about the world Charlie was just born into. I worry that my son has been born into a digital age that uses magic devices to vaporize childlike wonder. I worry that geopolitical tensions are trending toward the unsayable, right when he will be coming of age. I can come up with many reasons why I’d sleep easier if the world were different right now, or if we simply were somewhere else.

But I just said I’m glad he was born this year. The reason is admittedly selfish: Charlie is teaching me that everything matters, in a year and a season of life where I know I would be sorely tempted to believe the opposite. Everything matters, even the smallest, cheapest, most transitory things–especially those things.

I’ve been joking to my wife that having a baby has turned me into a sentimental puddle. That’s probably part of it. But I also think that this year, I’ve seen through the fog of cynicism in a way that I’ve never seen through it before. Why does our contemporary American culture seem to value snark and cynicism so much? Why are the best talk show hosts the ones who “destroy” a particular opinion or a particular candidate? Why are the best tweets the ones that make ordinary life sound ridiculous and meaningless? Why does everyone seem to want to be angry?

A popular internet meme right now says, “LOLnothingmatters.” That’s the E pluribus enum of the internet age. Nothing matters, nothing really, because it’ll all be cached and deleted and rebooted tomorrow anyway. In this vacuum of meaning, outrage and a dismissive “above it all” mentality  are what feel real. Nothing matters, except how stylishly one can declare that nothing matters.

I think this is a species of despair. There are reasons to despair, after all. We millennials were taught by teachers and TV that we had the whole world in our hands. Not true, apparently. The expressive individualism that was supposed to unlock our true selves has only made us lonelier and sadder than any other generation. Politics is hostile and deeply un-empathetic. Pop culture is mired in the stagnation of nostalgia. The only thing many people know they want is to go back in time, when “things were better.”

In this kind of atmosphere, it’s easy to forget what life is. Life isn’t huge moments of history-turning significance. Life is day after day after day of 4am feedings. Life isn’t national elections and What’s Happening In the World Today. It’s the same drive to church, the same walk through the same park, again and again. Our technological age makes us think that what’s really valuable is newness, speed, and cutting edge. Many people spend their life looking for the next “big” thing, the real Moment that will fill their void. What they miss completely is that there is no such Moment. There is no “tipping point.” Instead, there is morning and evening, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. That’s life.

Charlie knows nothing else but this life. He forgets yesterday as soon as it’s over. And that’s how his mother and I have to take care of him. We have to help him live each day for its own sake.

I think that’s what so many Christians miss. We become obsessed with not “wasting” our lives that we convince ourselves that life is the sum total of our majestic, “unwasted” moments. But that’s just not true. A small life isn’t wasted, because life itself is small, not huge. Instead of being busy trying not to waste my life, I have to simply live the life I already have: I’m a husband, a dad, a church member, an employee, etc. My unwasted life happens every day. When I remember this, I don’t panic at elections. I don’t give up on people. I don’t despair, because I know who I am is not dependent on how the world is doing today.

And I’m free to have joy. I can find pleasure in things like my son’s laugh, or our family’s favorite restaurant, or a good book. I don’t have to agonize over whether these things are helping me be “productive” or, in more spiritual lingo, “advancing” the kingdom. The kingdom isn’t Bible study + mission trips. It’s dirty diapers and snotty noses, because that’s where Jesus is.

My boy is only 3 months old, and already he is showing me where Jesus is. Now that’s the best thing ever.

5 Things I Learned As a Pastor’s Kid

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

___________

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

“You Should Write a Book!”

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

“When are you going to write a book?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

14 Worthless Predictions for the NFL Season

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

The Roots of Conspiracy Theory Rage

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

Dear Fellow Conservative,

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

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

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

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

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

There Are No Secrets Anymore

Disgraced politician Anthony Weiner has been disgraced yet again…and again, it’s all about some raunchy texts. I can’t really laugh at him, because it’s obvious that he’s dealing with some life-deforming demons that I know too well. My prayer is that he would reach to the heavens for the rescue he desperately needs.

In a brief piece at National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke makes an interesting point about technology and immorality. Years ago, this kind of infidelity was hard to keep secret, because it required physical presence. Then, with technology, it got really easy to keep secret. But now, with the way that modern smartphone technology tracks and archives everything, secrecy is impossible yet again:

By the 1950s, everybody had a car, which they could use to get to the next town — or farther. Motels popped everywhere, as did their discreet proprietors. And the analog telephone provided a means by which those who were up to no good could communicate instantly, and without leaving a substantial record. So fundamentally did this transform American life that traditionalists complained openly about the deleterious effect that modernity was having on conventional mores…

[I]s this still true? I think not, no. Now, there are cameras everywhere. Now, most people carry cell phones and drive cars that track their movement by satellite. Now, most communication is conducted via intermediate servers, and spread across multiple devices. In 1960, the average American could make a sordid phone call without there being any chance that it would be taped. Today, with a $3 app, anybody can record any conversation and send it anywhere in the world in a few seconds…Put plainly, it is now nigh on impossible for anybody to get away with infidelity, especially if one is a public figure.

Maybe we could put it like this: In the age of the iPhone, doing something lascivious while no one is watching is the easiest it’s ever been–but doing it without anyone ever knowing is virtually (pun not intended) impossible. At the very least, those naked pictures and crass text messages are being stored somewhere, on technology that someone with a name and two eyes built and maintains.

Surely, as Cooke writes of Weiner, we know this to be the case. So why is there so much explicitness on cloud servers? I can think of two answers.

First, sexual temptation is stronger, always has been stronger, and always will be stronger than logic. This is why Solomon urges his son to not even walk down the street where the adulterous woman lives.

Second, though: Is it possible that many in Western culture are actually OK with the idea of people they’ll never meet having access to their naked bodies and lewd messages? Could it be that our pornified consciousness has actually numbed us to the point where, even if we know that our texts and pictures stop belonging to us the moment we press “Send,” we don’t really care? Have we, as the prophets warned, actually become the very smut we love?

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.

The Slough of Internet Despond

The latest nominee for Tweet of the Year comes from professor James K.A. Smith:

I am endlessly perplexed by people who say–and there are many who do–that social media and the internet “community” are the best measures of What’s Really Happening in the world today. These folks will point us to Twitter if we want to know what’s really making an impact in our culture, the things people are really talking about. There’s an entire journalism industry, in fact, being formed around the idea that the internet has a personality, and that this personality is every bit as consequential to your experience of the world as the 10PM news. Thus, you get stories in your news feed like, “Celebrity XYZ Recently Said This, and the Internet is NOT Happy About It.”

If you spend most of your day scanning social media sites and blogs, you will probably come away with a very specific idea of what American culture is like. The latest hashtags will probably convey some sense of despair or outrage; the latest viral videos will either do the same, or else distract. But here’s the thing: Because of the effect of digital media on human attention, the internet is designed to be totally absorbing and supremely now. If you’re riding the bus and two people behind you are quarreling, you probably won’t get off the bus and feel a palpable sense of depression for the rest of the day at how selfish human beings can be. On the other hand, if you’re reading Twitter hashtags and following back-and-forths between really angry users and the target of their outrage, you will almost certainly turn off your phone and feel consumed by it. That’s not because the outrage you just watched is more real (actually the opposite is probably true), it’s because your brain absorbed it in a qualitatively different way than it absorbed the bus ride (for more on this topic, I recommend this outstanding book)

This is exactly why a dive into social media will lead you to believe that the world is probably a terrible place to live right now. Everything, from the littlest of impolite slights to the most difficult issues of human justice, is magnified with unending intensity on the screen. If you turn off your phone and head down to the library or the coffee shop, though, it kinda seems the people you’re sitting next to don’t have any idea that they should be packing their bags for the bomb shelter. They talk normally, seem relatively calm, maybe even kind. It’s almost as if you’re experiencing two distinct cultures: One a perpetually moving but never anchored sea of consciousness, bent every which way by advertising and technology; and the other, a culture of place, permanence, and sunshine.

I know a lot of people, some very close to me, who are going through difficult times right now. There are thousands of people in Louisiana this second who have suffered cataclysmic loss. Yet invariably, the most miserable people I run into are not these people. The most miserable people are the ones who don’t suffer, but merely hover–attached to the world by ether, spending their emotions and their hours consuming a diet of pixels.

 

Independence Week

firecracker-801902_640Tonight my family gathered to celebrate my older sister’s birthday. All of the James kids and parents still live in Louisville, a fact that I didn’t think sounded all that remarkable until a friend told me that it really was. Both of my brother-in-laws are Ph.D. students who have the world open to them after graduation. Who knows where they’ll end up? These family gatherings are for a season, and are precious indeed.

On the drive to my sister’s a police car came behind me. I always notice marked cars, check my speedometer and make sure I’m buckled and signaling. But I never panic or run through emergency “What if” scenarios in my head. That is a luxury that many people in this country, including some friends, don’t have. When a police car gets close, they are worried, not because of what they have to hide but because of what they have to know. There are many people in this country for whom a simple 8 minute drive is laden with potential peril. I cannot even imagine myself in the same scenario.

We celebrated on my sister’s new patio. She has two boys, one 3 and the other nearly 2. The 3 year old got a prize from  his parents for a successful episode of potty training: A toy gun. I played with toy guns for summers immemorial, so when my nephew brought me his new treasure, I looked on with admiration. It’s an impressively detailed, kid-sized AR assault rifle. I imagined my nephew playing in his yard with his toy gun, conquering evil emperor Zurg or Darth Vader. I never once worried that someone might think his plastic prop was real, that someone might call the police and that my nephew would find himself surrounded by strange men wearing black,  in a life or death situation far beyond the comprehension of a 3 year old. Never once did I fear that.

We dined on pork chops straight from the grill, my wife’s homemade mashed potatoes, watermelon, key lime pie, and sweet iced tea. We sat and talked and laughed, about work, school, the Trinity (!), movies, having babies and not sleeping. Our hearts were light and merry, and we rejoiced in each other and in our family the same way we’ve rejoiced a billion other evenings. In the humid sphere of a backyard in July, we knew that we had each other, and the thought of anyone there not being there was as far from our minds as the rings of Saturn. There is my mom and dad, playing with their grandchildren. There is my wife, carrying our unborn son, whom we will welcome into the world with an army of families to love him. There is my brother-in-law, a brilliant scholar who will never lack for opportunities and admiration. Everything, everyone, seemed right where they belong, and the future, though veiled, felt as kind as the past.

I don’t know everything there is to know about my country. I’m not in expert in her politics, or well-trained in her demographics. But sitting down to a hot meal in the thick of summer, with family around me and no fear of any imminent harm, I realized that I believe something.

I believe every single American should have a chance to know what a night like tonight feels like.

I believe every single person in this country should be able to live accountable to God and justice, and free from the fear of ruthless or tyrannical forces.  I believe the drives to summer barbecues should be expectant of joy and hope, not of chaos. I believe that everyone in this country ought to know how it feels to gather with their generations, with a life of hope and optimism spread before them.

I believe that social media is helpful in telling the facts but less helpful in telling the truth. I believe that it’s not the preeminent politicians or cultural icons who can bring a people together, but the thousands upon thousands of small churches that preach the gospel of peace. I don’t look to Washington or Hollywood for the balm to a hurting nation; I look first to the hills, from whence my help comes (Ps. 121:1-2).

Our country is like our own hearts: Awash in the contradictions of a humanity caught between the banishment from Eden and the glory of a new Jerusalem. We are just, yet unjust. We are righteous but then unrighteous. We clean the outside of the cup, but the inside we leave vile. That is not just a civics lesson. It’s the story of all the sick for whom Jesus came. We rejoice in America at the same time we grieve her sins. If there is contradiction in that, let it be the same contradiction inside of us.

And let us hope. Love hopes all things. Let us hope not because we know we can Fix Everything, but because when the United States is nothing more than an echo of a memory in human history, hope will live on.