On Social Media and the Erosion of Conversation

Pew’s research on social media’s effect on people’s willingness to undertake conversations is worth pausing to reflect about for a moment.  Active social media use actually decreases people’s willingness to share their opinions not simply online, but in other contexts as well.  This is particularly true of people who think their opinions are in the minority, though it happens more generally than that.

A number of people pointed out after I posted it on, erm, the social media channels that they used Snowdon and the NSA as their test case, and wondered whether this might have been particularly to blame for people’s unwillingness to share their opinions online about the subject.  That’s a fair point, but not persuasive:  after all, people were less likely to share their opinions in person, too.  Unless people were possessed then by total paranoia–and not living in America at the time, I am skeptical that they did but cannot properly assess it–then it seems like the muting effect has to do with the threat of perceived disagreements than the subject matter itself.

Somewhat relatedly, Freddie De Boer recently lamented the nasty state of online liberalism.  As he puts it:

It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. 

It’s a bit narrow, though, to say that this is simply a liberal problem.  Spend a few minutes browsing the comments on Erick Erickson’s recent post on the conflict between his faith and his politics…or rather, don’t.  You already know what’s in there, and it is not pretty.  Conservatives (theological or otherwise) have their own “acceptable stances” and terms, too, and moving outside of them–as I have sometimes done–raises eyebrows and elicits emails.  Those exchanges have been, thankfully, generally more civil than what many folks get online.  But still, that kind of boundary-policing is exhausting to have to deal with.

I’ve been ruminating on all this recently, along with my friend David Sessions’ excellent post on why the internet is awful and Frank Chimero’s analysis of Twitter, which suggests that the nature of the conversation there has moved from the “front porch” mode to the “street” mode.  I don’t have grand thoughts about how it all connects–smarter minds than I, like David, will have to take up that task.

But by way of hypothesis, I do wonder whether the shift in conversations away from blogs or other internet “third places” toward the more intimate and personal “social media” platforms is partly responsible for the increasing difficulty people seem to have disagreeing with others online and elsewhere. This is particularly the case with Facebook, I think, moreso than Twitter–and might explain why Facebook users experience the ‘spiral of silence’ more.  In my Facebook use, for instance, I might go from pictures of my life around town one moment (when I lived in Oxford, anyway) to discussing the politics of Hobby Lobby the next.  I see pictures of my friends’ children, and then get comments from them disagreeing with me.

The intellectual environment such juxtapositions create blurs any distinction between personal and public, which makes it more difficult to disentangle the disagreements I have with my friends about (say) social policies regarding marriage from my friendships themselves.   This is particularly true with people that I have not seen much, like friends from undergrad.  I’m not generally one to shy away from conflict.  But with what feels like so many minor conflicts and disagreements going all the time, attrition simply takes over and I lose my appetite for the conversation.  Those are people I’m supposed to be friends with, or at least friendly with, after all, but perpetual, pervasive disagreement at even a cheerful level is corrosive to that.

To borrow Frank Chimero’s categories, if Twitter has moved from the ‘front porch’ to the ‘street,’ Facebook has brought the street up on to the front porch.  People treat their Facebook walls like their own, personal space, a habit that Facebook has encouraged since the beginning.  But that raises the stakes for everything that happens there.  While it has always been difficult to distinguish between the personal and the public, Facebook is a business built on obliterating that distinction.  Everything is both, simultaneously, and that means the conversation has a different ethos than it does in a coffee shop.  Next time someone invites you over for dinner, try critiquing their views of fracking without any other social interaction. Let me know how that goes for you.

But as I said, I don’t have grand thoughts about this.  It’s an interesting conglomeration of essays, though, and I hope people ill take them up in the comments.

 

 

Which Generous Spaciousness for Gay Christians?

It’s been five years since Andrew Marin published his widely read Love is an Orientation, and the need which Marin’s book attempted to fill has grown at a rapid pace.  While there has been no shortage of discussion among evangelicals about the moral and political status of homosexuality, few rigorously theological and pastorally sensitive resources have been developed for churches and pastors to learn best how to welcome gay into their communal and individual lives.  Instead, vague exhortations about how Christians need to be more loving and improve their image abound.

generous spaciousnessWendy VanderWal-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness:  Responding to Gay Christians in the Church is not, alas, the book we have been waiting for.  As the director of New Directions Ministry, a Canadian organization that was a part of Exodus International until it pivoted in 2007 toward building bridges between Christians and the LGBT communities, VanderWal-Gritter has a wealth of practical and personal experience to draw from.  She aims in Generous Spaciousness to “model a posture” for individuals, churches, and organizations that is not “just a wishy-washy, weak compromise” on the questions surrounding homosexuality, but that orients us toward hospitality and faithful discipleship for LGBT people within the church. That is a commendable goal, no doubt, and her book has occasional moments of insight and the occasional bit of wise council for pastors and parishioners. But by repeatedly presenting the progressive position at its best and responding to ‘conservative’ theology at its worst, VanderWal-Gritter creates a caricature of the demands of “unity” that claims the moral high ground for those who wish to push doctrine to the side. Her concept of ‘generous spaciousness’ is no “wishy-wash, weak compromise”: it is an outright abdication on the possibility of moral knowledge and its role within the church.

Her book is pervaded by trendy jargon that obscures as much as it clarifies, and that sometimes borders on the sort of de-Scripturalized, therapeutic discourse that has marked the “ex-gay” community at its worst.  (As she notes, VanderWal-Gritter notes that “many ex-gay ministries espouse a variety of psychoanalytic theories in the development of ministry interventions.”  While she doesn’t endorse such an approach, it’s clear from her own work that she hasn’t quite escaped it.) Terms like honesty, authenticity, openness, vulnerable, acceptance, and the inescapable journey get their power from their vagueness, even if they seem to be for her the central virtues of the spiritual and moral life.

Such terms sometimes also function asymmetrically, so that those who are doubting and questioning their convictions and the traditional teaching of the church on the morality of same-sex sexual practices end up with a privileged insights into key portions of Scripture.  In her defense that Christians should interact with each other on questions of same-sex sexuality as though it were a “disputable matter,” and hence akin to how Paul exhorts the Romans to behave with respect to food ethics in Romans 14, VanderWal-Gritter offers the following jaw-dropping analysis:

“One has to wonder if the process of wrestling with a particular question personally is the foundation from which one can internalize Paul’s teaching in Romans 14 of not getting in the way of someone else’s choices and making life more difficult for them. For when you get on your knees at the side of your bed night after night pleading with God to take away your same-sex attractions, you experience solidarity with others who have had the same experience….And out of this very real and personal place arises the kind of mutuality and preference for the other that Paul speaks of.  The truth is straight people will never be able to fully enter that space—because straight people have never wrestled in those particular personal and deep places.”

Even if we thought that Scripture put same-sex sexual activity on the same moral plane as food sacrificed to idols such that it is a “disputed matter”—and there is lots of reason to doubt that is the case—this sort of argument actually would work against the case.  If Romans 14 did require people to internally wrestle with the particular question, then only those with same-sex attraction could have the “generous spaciousness” that VanderWal-Gritter ostensibly wants.  That would be a bizarre basis for a Biblical exhortation, however.  What’s more, VanderWal-Gritter’s claim that “straight people have never wrestled in those particular personal and deep places” strikes me as false to the point of incoherent.  Many straight people who have taken Jesus’s exhortations about lust in Matthew 5 seriously have spent wakeful nights pleading with God to remove temptations from them, even temptations that if known or acted upon would bring them great shame from their community. To think otherwise would be to single out same-sex desire as uniquely troubling to the individuals who experience it—a claim I suspect many in her audience will be fast to reject.

While VanderWal-Gritter wants to avoid arguing directly about the moral questions surrounding this debate, she ends up simply presupposing a moral outlook that many conservative evangelicals object to.  In her exhortation to help same-sex attracted individuals cultivate a “positive vision for the future,” she suggests that some will begin to dream of a same-sex marriage.  “Where this dream is grounded in the confidence of the unconditional love and embrace of God,” she writes, “such a dream can be a vibrant part of a person’s ongoing spiritual journey, particularly when it is based on careful study, reflection, prayer, waiting, and listening to Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and trusted mentors.”  In perhaps the worst sentences in the book, she encourages us to welcome those who might dream of a same-sex relationship by pointing out that “It is important to remember that love is love. And love is of God.”  Nevermind that the content or shape of “love” within the sphere of human sexuality is precisely what is in question. “Love,” whatever else it might be, is not the amorphous, empty concept that her tautology indicates. While she protests that her view is not a “call for a watered-down discipleship,” her unwillingness to specify the terms under which sexual “love” no longer is from God suggests that is precisely what is on offer.

This kind of slant structures the entire book, so that it is questionable whether VanderWal-Gritter’s understanding of “generous spaciousness” is separable from it.  For instance, in discussing the role that spiritual fruit among Christians has played in her own life, she writes, “A closed system necessarily finds ways to discount such fruit as appearing to be authentic but actually being counterfeit.  But I could not justify such an ultimately subjective, selfish, and spiritually violent evaluation. As far as I knew, the fruit that I was seeing and experiencing was the real deal—and if it wasn’t, that could only be God’s call.”  I leave aside the question of “fruit” within the Christian life only to point out that being “closed” is not necessarily the negative feature of a “system” that VanderWal-Gritter presupposes.  If a system has no way of discerning when someone is self-deceived or when the fruits they are demonstrating have been disconnected from other crucial moral aspects of their lives which may erode them over a long period of time, then so much the worse for the system.

There are all sorts of people in this world who demonstrate qualities that seem to be similar to the fruits of the Spirit.  VanderWal-Gritter privileges our ability to discern when someone’s life demonstrates “fruit.”  As she goes on to say, “It seems incredibly audacious to me that anyone would consider sitting in the seat of judgment regarding the authenticity of faith of those who demonstrate good fruit in their lives.” But rather than accept the “tension” and the “mystery” that some people might have “fruit” while engaging in practices that Scripture is opposed to, she instead wishes us to embrace the tension and mystery at the heart of Scripture’s teachings about human sexuality, where she sees only complexity and disagreement.  It’s not at all clear, though, why we should be more confident in the meaning of our own lives and the quality of our own spiritual fruit and hesitating and uncertain about the meaning of Scripture, especially when the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9) opens the possibility that we are all self-deceived.

My point is not necessarily to drag VanderWal-Gritter into the very moral questions that she thinks have been so harmful for the church’s witness.  Rather, it is simply to point out that it may be the case that how we go about inculcating a view of “generous spaciousness” in the church may itself depend upon the answers we come to with those moral questions.  If the “space” of the church is going to be anything more than an empty void, a black hole where anything (literally) goes in the realm of human sexuality, save those actions which do not result in “fruit,” then we must identify and understand its boundaries, and that invariably means drawing lines.  While it may be the case, as VanderWal-Gritter repeatedly points out, that conservative evangelicals have been overly focused on such boundary-maintainence and have sometimes operated based on fear, without boundaries there can be no “inclusion.”

To make the point sharper, if we can substitute the language of polyamory and polygamy for homosexuality and gay marriage, without a significant alteration to the argument, then something is clearly awry. If there are “polyamorous Christians” who demonstrate the kind of “fruit” that gives us pause and who can similarly problematize Scripture’s teaching (where there is even some positive evidence for polygamy in the Old Testament), then ought we treat the question as a “disputed matter”?  My only point is that the language of morality is more useful for understanding what sort of spaciousness we should have in the church, and what kind of generosity we are called to.

It similarly helps no one if the presupposition is that those who are theologically conservative have not worked through the “hard questions”, and so only hold their view because of tradition or for other reasons.  VanderWal-Gritter repeatedly objects to an emphasis on truth, orthodoxy, and certainty as being driven “more by fear and anxiety than by love.”  The book is written for those for whom “simplistic, black and white answers on these questions will not suffice.”  Doubtlessly such people exist.  But there is nothing simplistic about the answers Christians have traditionally given on these questions, and there is nothing easy about accepting them. Working from such caricatures—VanderWal-Gritter at one point uses an anonymous comment on YouTube!—is simply not helpful, though. It may be that a conservative theological approach to inclusion has not been found wanting, so much as left untried altogether.  Trying to circumvent doctrinal claims and genuine moral knowledge for the sake of unity simply presupposes that the two can be disconnected—which is simply not a proposition that conservative evangelicals can or will get behind.

All this is a missed opportunity, as evangelicals need to articulate how the message of the Gospel can be embedded in our local church communities in a way that is more hospitable to those whose form of lives we disagree with.  We need generous spaciousness.  Of that I have no doubt.  But not this one.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book for review. 

On Disrespectable Christianity

Tish Harrison Warren, whose writing I admire a great deal, has an excellent piece over at Christianity Today on Vanderbilt University’s lamentable decision to prohibit campus groups from setting their own standards for student leadership.  Harrison Warren was part of Intervarsity’s leadership during that season, and so had a seat on the front row.  Thankfully, though, she writes with a reflective calm:

I began to realize that inside the church, the territory between Augustine of Hippo and Jerry Falwell seems vast, and miles lie between Ron Sider and Pat Robertson. But in the eyes of the university (and much of the press), subscribers to broad Christian orthodoxy occupy the same square foot of cultural space.

The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.

It didn’t matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn’t matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.

Harrison Warren’s reflections are, I think, indicative of the kind of realization that many of the younger-set of evangelicals are going to have to face in the years to come.  Many of the most hopeful and best parts of evangelicalism the past fifteen years have been encompassed by an incipient desire for respectability.  The resurgent apologetics-evangelicals have sought to demonstrate the faith’s intellectual credibility, while the artistic evangelicals have made it quite clear you can still love Jesus and watch House of Cards, thank you very much.  The politically-reformist evangelicals have put a hole in the “not like those Republicans” drum, while the social justice evangelicals have made everyone forget about the Four Spiritual Laws.  And some of us—ahem—have pounded on about how we can read the old stuff, too, which can be its own form of “not like them folks there” attitude.

Those movements for reform and expansion of the evangelical footprint are worthy enough in their own right, maybe.  But Reform has often been laced with the promise of Respectability, and many of us—me included—have swallowed the poison.  I have a vague, half-articulated notion that those King James only communities who have been the butt of so many evangelical jokes will be, when it’s all said and done, some of the only Protestant communities still standing:  they gave up their respectability a long time ago and don’t seem to have missed it since.

Harrison Warren, indeed, mentions the Amish as one plausible path forward for “cultural engagement.”  Few young evangelicals will seriously take that path, though perhaps many more should.  But the vast majority of us will, I suspect, continue to fight and plead for a kind of respectability out of the earnest, good-hearted desire to see our neighbors convinced of our ideas—or if not of our ideas, at the very least of our sanity.  Arguments for ‘civility’ and ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’ and ‘respect’ are coming fast and furious these days, after all, even though they are fifteen years (at least) too late.

I have had another general impression—and the reader will rightly accuse me at this point of having far too many of those in this post—that what evangelicals, young and old, most desperately need is a political manifestation of joy.  Harrison Warren sounds the martyrs note, without overstriking it:  “Throughout history and even now, Christians in many parts of the world face not only rejection but violent brutality. What they face is incomparably worse than anything we experience on U.S. college campuses, yet they tutor us in compassion, courage, and subversive faithfulness.”  Yet if we do not grasp the joy of the martyrs, we do not understand them at all.

I was accused recently, in talking about these sorts of things with students, of being something of a pessimist.  “We ought to keep fighting,” the argument went, “because the world we’re handing down to our children matters.”  Fair enough, and Lord knows that I am not yet perfected in my joy.  But Christians need a flagrant disregard for the coming wave of disrepute, a disregard which quickly turns the pathetic instruments of stigmatization into jewelry and art.  Without that, and without Jove’s presence among us, whatever “argument” we have will come to no effect.  Pessimism and the joy of the martyr may look almost the same, but as Chesterton noted, the one dies for the sake of dying while the other for the sake of living.

Addendum:  While thinking further about this, it occurred to me that “respectability” as a temptation is most likely limited to those pursuing white, upper-middle class lifestyles, for whom ‘respectability’ is a kind of currency that gets things done.  How this plays in to the above I leave to readers to determine.

Mere Fidelity: Made for More, with Hannah Anderson

Hannah Anderson’s Made for More is a book I heartily endorsed.  She joins us in this latest episode of Mere Fidelity to talk about the doctrine of the image of God, women, and their role in the church.

Follow Hannah here, and give her (excellent) blog a visit.

The iTunes feed for Mere Fidelityis here if you’d like to subscribe (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly), and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek and Alastair for more tweet-sized thoughts.

 

How Ferguson Taught me To Love Cops and Looters

Editor’s note:  Jack Bates is a PhD student in historical theology at Wheaton College, studying the theology and practice of the early church to enrich the theology and practice of the church today.  He visited Ferguson at the peak of the unrest and offers this reflection. 

You could feel the fear in the air. You could see it in the eyes of the mothers in the crowd—young and old, clutching infant daughters and granddaughters to their chests. You could hear it in the faint tremulousness in the voices of angry teenagers, even as they shout “F— the police!” in their bravado. It gives their swagger an edge of hesitancy, of uncertainty. The fear is obvious in the steely, seemingly-unfeeling gazes of the lines of police officers in their riot gear, uncertain about who intends for the protests to remain peaceful and who is intent that they don’t. This fear—of nearly everybody toward nearly everybody else, a fear intensely felt but carefully hidden—was my dominant impression of the situation in Ferguson while I was there this last weekend.

I have been closely following the news reports on Ferguson, and I think that most of the media outlets have missed this dimension of its atmosphere, a dimension I increasingly believe is crucial to understanding what is going on in the hearts and minds of that community. While I was in Ferguson, journalists mostly huddled behind police lines or inside the McDonald’s on West Florissant Avenue (which, when things got dicey, locked its doors to those of us trying to get to safety). At their most adventurous, reporters stood on the sidewalks as protesters marched by. It is no surprise, then, that so many of them—in their [detached objectivity? caution? fear?]—seem to have missed the palpable fear of the police and the protesters, a fear best perceived not by standing on the sidewalks but by trying to stand with the people.

That’s at least what I tried to do: to stand with the people of Ferguson as much as I could, to share in their mourning, their suffering, their pleas for justice. I did it as much as I could, as a white man from a whitewashed suburb of Chicago that lies 300 miles removed from the predominantly African-American St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. When police used tear gas on us to disperse our peaceful protest on Sunday night, I joined with them in their suffering. I even felt their fear—to a point. But there were facets of the experience of the people in Ferguson that I simply could not experience with them.

ferguson

When the tear gas canisters started flying, I was surprised at the rapidity with which the crowds fled. Within minutes, a handful of young African-American men and I were all that was left of the protest march. I thought to myself, “So it’s tear gas. What’s the big deal? You just stay away from the gas clouds.” But as some of my fellow protesters had told me earlier, generations of residents had grown up in fear of what the police would do to them if they “stepped out if line.” White people tell their kids cautionary moral tales with witches and monsters as the villains. Many in Ferguson grew up hearing stories in which the police are the villains. Whether such narratives are fair representations of police in the Ferguson area is more than I can say. What is important is that the idea that the police are to be feared is deeply entrenched in the psyche of the African-American community in Ferguson. That is absolutely crucial to understanding what is going on there, and it is very difficult for many of us to understand.

For me, the worst abuse of police power I’d ever been exposed to has been a few unjustly-given parking tickets. And police in middle-white communities aren’t perceived as dangerous oppressors, but as comic figures: overweight, incompetent bunglers dusted with donut crumbs. Chief Wiggum on “The Simpsons” or Sheriff Rosco on “The Dukes of Hazzard.” When a police officer in my extended family shot himself in the foot at the gun range, our expressions of sympathy were peppered with chuckles, smirks, and knowing glances. He had played his part well. All this made it difficult for me to come to understand the importance of fear in the Ferguson protests and the police response.

But I’ve come to be convinced that a spiral of mutually-reinforcing fear and violence seems—to me, at least—to be at the heart of what has happened in Ferguson. When protesters are afraid of police, they respond violently to police in an attempt to gain some control of the situation to manage their fear. The police then become more fearful of the protesters and respond with violence and intimidation to gain control of the situation to manage their fear, which prompts greater fear and violence from the protesters, etc.

Consider the looting that has plagued Ferguson since Brown’s death. Looting may be the grief of the community acted out. It may be simply opportunism. A Ferguson resident suggested to me that looting is a sort of performative protest: Brown was accused of stealing, so the protesters steal in solidarity with him. People don’t really seem to know what to make of the looting, and the interpretations on offer leave a lot to be desired.

I’m convinced that the looting can be understood as a response to fear and an effort to manage it. The feeling inside the protest zones of Ferguson was that of an occupied territory. Lines of cops in full riot gear every block or two. Squad cars. Blockades. All this makes the people of Ferguson feel powerless, and feeling powerless in the face of a heavily armed and armored occupying force naturally engenders quite a bit of fear. Looting provides a sense of control over the situation and therefore helps them feel less afraid. Too intimidated and fearful of the police to risk a direct confrontation, looters win a “war by proxy” by committing a crime and getting away with it, thus showing that the cops’ power is not without limit.

But why that particular crime? If the temptation is to score one against the Law & Order crowd, why looting rather than jaywalking or defacing library books? Suffering tends to generate entitlement, making us feel that we are owed some compensatory good. And we are tempted to take moral and legal shortcuts when we are denied goods that we think we deserve. People suffering because of the brokenness of their community and the heavy hand of occupying police forces feel they are owed something. Looters not only get material goods they desire, but they feel the freedom from police control for which they long.

The escalating response of police forces in Ferguson likewise illustrates well the fear and violence spiral. Post-9/11, there has been a greater sense of danger, diffused through Americans in general but especially inculcated in our police forces. This greater sense of danger, further, was added on top of the previous increase in the sense of danger precipitated by “War on Drugs” rhetoric and policing techniques. An embattled police force that has been conditioned to view a subset of the population as enemy combatants in a “war” will take on a military rather than a “To Protect and Serve” mindset. Further, since the police have no surefire way of identifying who is an enemy combatant in this conflict, is it surprising that they will resort either to demographic-based profiling or to simply treat all civilians as likely combatants?

Psychologists tell us that the stronger an unpleasant emotion is, the more motivated we are to attempt to eliminate the experience of that emotion. The greater the feeling of injustice, the greater the feeling of fear, the more desperate we feel to normalize our emotional state, and the more desperate means we will be tempted to employ to achieve that. If our communities do not turn to looting, if our police forces do not turn to excessive force, intimidation, and militarization, it may not be due to the moral superiority of our communities, but simply because fear and desperation are not felt in our communities as they are in Ferguson. The heavier the hand of the police presses on the people of Ferguson, the more afraid and desperate the people become, and the more tempted they are to take increasingly desperate and violent action to alleviate their fear.

Nothing I’ve written above serves as arguments for the moral justification for the shooting of Michael Brown, his alleged theft and alleged assault of officer Wilson, the violent police response toward the protesters and reporters who have been peaceful, the violent protester response toward police, or the looting. My aim, instead, is to render these actions more understandable, because understanding promotes compassion, even—and perhaps especially—when we don’t agree with the choices others have made. I’m trying to get us to give the right answer to the question asked in the context of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Who is my neighbor?”

The people of Ferguson are feeling intense emotions, and ending the cycle of fear and violence will require police and authorities in the Ferguson area to build trust by seeking to understand these emotions. The police damaged this public trust by releasing information about Brown as a robbery suspect alongside evidence regarding his death. Many in the public (understandably) interpreted this as a claim and a threat: “Brown got what he deserved, and if you step out of line, the same might just happen to you.”When protesters in Ferguson declare, “I am Mike Brown,”they mean it. They are giving voice to their fear that, unless justice comes to Ferguson, they might become the next Michael Browns. The people of Ferguson need to hear that their complaints, their groans and cites for justice—not just for Michael Brown, but for themselves—are heard and taken seriously.

A common refrain I’ve heard in response to the events in Ferguson is: “Officer Wilson just did what any of us would have done.” My temptation has been to respond, “So what if he did just do what I would have done? I’m a crooked man with a crooked heart.”

But it is more important to see that such a refrain shows solidarity and empathy only with the white cop with the gun in his hand. Why not ask what we would want to be done to us if we had been Michael Brown? If I had robbed a convenience store, I would still want police to attempt to use non-lethal methods of neutralizing me. If Michael Brown were my kid, I would want him to have the chance for his deeply-troubled youth to become the prologue to the story of God’s restoring grace in his life, rather than being the final chapter. Wouldn’t we want this for ourselves, for our children?

It is very problematic only to empathize with the police and not the African-American poor in Ferguson. I hope that a greater understanding of the situation in Ferguson will lead those who participate and those who observe to a deeper love for all involved. For the distinctively Christian response to the events of Ferguson isn’t “pro-police” any more than it’s “pro-protester.” It’s love. It’s compassion. For all involved: police, protester, looter. For these are our neighbors.

Should Sermons Be Published?

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Today we live in a world where pastors of churches large and small post their sermons online almost immediately. Many live-stream and some churches even offer sophisticated viewing experiences allowing viewers to provide feedback. What’s more, the advent of smart phones and social media has made Sunday sermons an interactive experience. Social media on Sunday is filled with comments and quotes drawn from the church service. Christian conferences are chronicled live on Twitter with special hash tags, Instagram pictures, and commentary.

Some lament (link mine) this new reality. They say we are eroding the value of the incarnational experience of hearing a message. This is a valid concern, but pastors and church leaders must deal with the world that is: a digital conversation that is here to stay. So preachers must reckon with reality: when you walk up to the pulpit or lectern, you are not merely speaking to the room. You are speaking the outside world as well.

This reality shouldn’t change the substance of the old-time gospel story. But it should cause us to think through the content we deliver, knowing we are often speaking simultaneously to both the choir and to outsiders, some of whom are ready to pounce on every stray word.

So far as it goes, this communications advice Dan Darling offered to pastors on preaching in the age of podcasting is sound. If you’re a public figure who makes a living communicating, you should follow his advice unless you want to end up with a massive PR nightmare on your hands. Yet what’s troubling about the piece is perhaps precisely that point: I could give the exact same advice to any other communications professional without really changing any of it. Note how effortlessly Darling assumes that pastors do record their sermons and make them available as podcasts. The unjustified assumption behind this piece–left unjustified, one assumes, because no one bothers to argue against it these days–is that pastors should make their sermons available as podcasts. But why do we make that assumption so effortlessly? Why should we record and podcast sermons? There are, after all, very good reasons not to record them–we just have forgotten them.

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Mere Fidelity: And who is a person?

We take up, once again, Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made?  We start from the below and carry on:

“The embryo is of interest to us because it is human; it is ‘ourselves’. On the other hand, it is considered a suitable object of experiment because it is not like us in every important way. It has no ‘personality’. It is us and not us. In those two assertions we see the movement of self-transcendence taking shape. The embryo is humanity in a form that is especially open to our pinning it down as scientific object and distancing ourselves from it in transcendent knowledge…

It is enough to point out that the ambiguity of the status of the embryo research subject is precisely what is intended. It is what the task of self-transcendence needs, that it should be ourselves and yet not ourselves. If we should wish to charge our own generation with crimes against humanity because of the practice of this experimental research, I would suggest that the crime should not be the old-fashioned crime of killing babies, but the new and subtle crime of making babies to be ambiguously human, of presenting to us members of our own species who are doubtfully proper objects of compassion and love.”

The iTunes feed is here, if you’d like to subscribe (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly) and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek and Alastair for more tweet-sized thoughts.

Mere Fidelity: What’s Wrong (and Right) with “Relatability”

To appreciate “King Lear”—or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars”—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.” In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities. That’s what sucks, not Shakespeare.

So said Rebecca Mead in her widely-read piece on “relatability.”  We naturally decided that the issue needed further dissection.  Go read her full essay, then return and give our latest podcast a listen.

The iTunes feed is here, if you’d like to subscribe (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly) and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek and Alastair for more tweet-sized thoughts.

 

When Churches and Parachurches Drift Apart

Peter Greer (@peterkgreer) is president and CEO of HOPE International. Chris Horst (@chrishorst) is the vice president of development at HOPE International. Together with the support of Anna Haggard, they coauthored Mission Drift and Entrepreneurship for Human Flourishing. They wrote this essay with support from HOPE intern, Andrey Bobrovskiy.

Public perceptions about religious expression continue to narrow, with recent high-profile faith-based organizations facing scrutiny of all varieties about how they practice their faith.

At California State University, evangelical groups who require leaders to sign a statement of faith are close to losing their official recognition with the administration. At Vanderbilt, Bowdoin and dozens of other universities, religious groups have already lost their official standing over the same issue.

For faith-based campus outreach groups, Christian colleges, urban ministries, adoption agencies and global relief and development organizations, the question society is asking is this: Just what makes your campus group, humanitarianism, education and service “Christian”?

It’s an important question. And it’s a question leaders of faith-based organizations, specifically, should be asking. Because in recent years, the connection between the church and parachurch ministries has been weakening. And if we are unable to clearly articulate the centrality of our faith to our work, how can expect others to?

For centuries, the local church was the centerpiece of outreach and service. The rapid creation of separate parachurch organizations is a relatively recent phenomenon. Para, parachurch’s prefix, is Greek for “alongside” or “beside.” The purpose of parachurch organizations is to come alongside, to support, the local church.

These organizations flourished, in large measure due to the forbearance produced by their faith and by God’s good provision. In their book, Sacred Aid, scholars Michael Barnett and Janice Gross Stein state that organizations “driven by religious faith also might be more willing to endure hardship and personal sacrifice for a longer period of time.”

Following the wars of the early 20th century, Christians undertook concerted efforts to respond on a massive scale to the devastation in Europe and Asia grew. The result was the rapid increase of Christian relief and development organizations motivated by faith, but in many cases, largely disconnected from the local church. Parachurch ministries and outreach organizations worked beside the church, but some ignored her completely.

More significantly, a philosophical and subtle separation developed between the “works” of justice and the “message” of salvation. Slowly, the church was given the responsibility to share the Good News verbally while the work of restoration went to nonprofits. Our crumbling ecclesiology has created a fissure we ought to work hard to mend.

On Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed, Jonathan Storment describes how the separation of parachurch ministries from their roots has dangerous implications:

The people who have started these non-profits or have tried to serve the world in Gospel ways through their business or parachurch organization are primarily people who have been formed in a local church. They have been taught to care about the world in a way that is in line with the nature of God, and adjust their bottom lines and values accordingly. But when we create a culture that is more in love with the fruit than the tree (and by tree I mean Jesus) we eventually lose both.

This has resulted in many parachurch organizations—including prominent once-parachurch organizations like ChildFund (formerly known as Christian Children’s Fund)—to divorce themselves entirely from the Christian faith of their youth. ChildFund was launched by a Presbyterian minister and initially was closely hinged to the church and exemplified robust Christian distinctiveness. But as ChildFund, and many other parachurches, grew, they have cut ties with the local church. As they’ve done so, they’ve secularized and abandoned their core faith convictions.

Cutting ties with the local church became like cutting the ropes to the anchor which enabled them to resist the cultural currents of mission drift.

As leaders of HOPE International, a Christ-centered microfinance organization, we know how messy partnering with the church can be.

“I know the church is described as the Bride of Christ in Scripture, but too often it acts like Bridezilla,” Gil Odendaal, vice president at World Relief, once remarked.

We’ve experienced these challenging realities as we’ve worked with churches in countries all over the world. It becomes quickly understandable why many parachurch organizations prefer to operate alone.

Despite the imperfections of every church this side of heaven, the church is God’s Plan A. There is no Plan B. His work continues through His chosen instrument. With a supernatural origination and divine mandate, the church is Christ’s hands and feet bringing the Good News as we love God and our neighbors. As parachurches, we remember we are the bridesmaid, not the bride. Our job is to gird and strengthen Christ’s church, not to replace it.

Parachurches cannot remain true to their mission without a rigorous ingratiation with Christ’s body—the church. Working under the authority of—or in close collaboration with—like-minded churches is perhaps the easiest way to stay on mission. When a religiously apathetic culture asks why faith-based organizations are any different than our secular counterparts, an adhesion to the church makes our response much clearer.

The reason parchurches should bind to the church is so they can stay aligned to their full mission. The church grounds all good works in the grander vision of humanity’s fall and God’s redemption. For organizations desiring to stay true to their mission, our question about partnering with the church should be “How do we partner?” not “Should we partner?”

We must remember that we are not just world-class humanitarians and educators and social workers, but Christians. Our faith compels us to serve the most vulnerable and to challenge the most powerful. We do this not as individuals and organizations divorced from Christ’s Church, but as vital members within it. The more visibly and practically we evidence this, the stronger our work will become and the clearer our picture to culture will be.

This Demon Only Comes Out By Prayer and Prozac

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.

“It’s a chemical imbalance.”

You may have heard or said those words before in reference to mental illness. I have done both myself a number of times in my practice as a primary care doctor. One good example of opening the conversation about them can be found here from Ed Stetzer; one of Stetzer’s explicit goals is to decrease shame and stigma against mental illness by locating the pathology of mental illness in neurobiology and then asserting the need for medication to rectify the dysfunctional biology. As Christians across the world grapple with the modern understanding of mental illness, it is helpful to not only understand what these imbalances are and how medication might address them, but also to challenge a point of view that reduces mental illness to a mere malfunction of biology.

The impetus behind the use of the words “chemical imbalance” is good. After all, confining mental illness solely to the untouchable realm of feelings and thoughts is not only ignorant of biology, but also of orthodox anthropology. Furthermore, such a harsh dichotomy happens to be extraordinarily ineffective in the lives of most sufferers of mental illness. You may or may not have heard of an excellent book that sought to make clear the theological importance of our physical bodies; affirming that deficiencies or excesses of certain chemicals in our brains play a role in mental illness is an important step in the process of rightly treating our bodies as part of the created order. In turn, the judicious use of other chemicals to rein in the torment and harm caused by mental illness is as much a part of using our God-given power to exercise dominion over the earth as is carefully using pesticides on our crops so that more people can eat.

However, saying “you’ve got a chemical imbalance” does not go far enough and, paradoxically, can often take us too far in the wrong direction.

Assigning mental illness solely to such imbalances is inadequate firstly because it underappreciates the complexity of neurobiology. For example, we know very well that people with depression have lower serotonin levels (most potently demonstrated in studying the brains of those who have committed suicide.) Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac or Zoloft raise serotonin levels in the brain. However, while many of the measurable effects of SSRIs on neurons can be seen within hours of first taking the drug, the effects of these medications are rarely appreciated until at least 4 to 6 weeks, making it far from clear that raising one’s low serotonin levels is their sole useful effect. Furthermore, the fact that any of these medicines has roughly a 30-40% chance of working in isolation on the first try is evidence that any “imbalances” we discuss are less like our car’s windshield wiper fluid and more like our food’s soil. When dealing with even more complex illnesses like bipolar disorder (which responds to a wide range of medications that are also effective for epilepsy) or schizophrenia (which involves a greater variety of neurochemical pathways), it is clear that the language of “chemical imbalance” is simply a starting point.

Secondly, while it is obvious that there are many aspects of brain biochemistry that we cannot consciously control, there are many others that we can. The choices we make shape our physical bodies– including our brain structure and genes. This is most apparent in the cycle of addiction, wherein an addict’s brain is often demonstrably altered to have a minimal response to normal pleasurable stimuli and to require greater and greater doses of the drug of choice to not feel agonizing withdrawal. However, as we learn more about the bodies that God has given us, we see that chronic stress and traumatic events (often caused by the sin of others) can shape the brains of children with immature decision-making ability in ways that last for a lifetime. Thus, there is a reciprocal relationship between our environment, our bodies, and our feelings. Both our moods and our decision-making abilities are shaped by constant internal decisions and external stimuli.

The most potent example of this principle is the case of a sexually abused child who overeats not only to soothe the excess quantities of stress hormones that may or may not be predisposing them to depression later in life, but also to appear less attractive to their abuser. Even without immediately jumping to the conclusion insisting that the government must do something (as part 3 of the article linked above does), it is clear that we must jettison any simplistic understanding of the complex interaction between brain and body as a matter of individuals choosing to either sinfully wallow in mental illness or righteously embrace freedom in Christ. Similarly, we must also not succumb to a materialistic view that defines people stuck in mental illness solely as victims of circumstance.

We go too far in the wrong direction in this manner when our appreciation for the power of pharmacology to help guide our brain chemistry into a more ordered pattern becomes a helpless veneration of medicine. I have seen this, too, in my practice– patients who have been trained to believe that their own efforts to calm their nerves or pay attention are useless when compared to the power of Xanax or Adderall. The danger of these medications is that they are powerful enough to abrogate our efforts; as prescriptions for these (and similar) medications continue to dominate the market in a way that disquiets many clinicians, a sense of restraint and discipline is necessary for all parties involved.

Health is a discipline. The bodies that God has given us require care and attention to maintain in a way that fits the pattern he established for our being; while our appetites can sometimes be helpful guides to our needs, they are often magnified or minimized by sin in such a way to lead us astray. Whether we are choosing certain foods, actively exercising, or avoiding other substances, our health requires active management and control.

These individual choices are also clearly shaped by our environment, from the simple unavailability of fresh vegetables in certain neighborhoods to the more complex changes caused by chronic stress described above. Disciplines, while individually practiced, are shaped by the communities that we live in and the values we collectively affirm. Wendell Berry points out that “autonomy” is a false cure for our modern ills, saying, “Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the opposite of loneliness.” When we do not pay heed to the disciplines– either individual or environmental– that shape our health, the breakdown of our bodies is attended by the breakdown of our minds and spirits.

In regards to mental health, it is often said that “food is the most overused antidepressant and exercise is the most underused antianxiety medication.” A variety of well-designed studies have borne out the efficacy of behavioral interventions for a variety of mental illnesses, demonstrating that our power over mental illness is not limited to pharmacology. That said, anyone who has ever seen a loved one struggle to take medication for mental illness can see that even the act of using pharmacology’s power (and bearing its side effects) is itself a discipline. Even more telling are the studies that show that some of the sickest people who burden emergency rooms with repeated visits see great improvements in their physical and mental health when they are brought into closer personal contact with caring people and housed.

Talk of health as a discipline or health choices as being shaped by culture brings to mind the issue of personal responsibility, which is a useful rallying cry for helping oneself feel less perturbed about the suffering of others, but by definition cannot be embraced as a corporate policy. Personal responsibility is clearly a component of discipline, but it is not the only one. For those who are struggling with mental illness, it is imperative they are approached first as persons with dignity whose ability to make rational decisions and take responsibility has been impaired– whether by themselves, by another, or by the happenstance of neurobiolog. Once this relationship of trust and respect is established, we can walk with them through both the personal and professional interventions necessary to learn or rediscover the skills that attend to personal responsibility.

Similarly, shame can be useful; the things that people with mental illness say and do when swayed by the winds of their depression or mania are often a powerful motivator to change their behavior when they feel ashamed of them. While we want to rightly eradicate the effects of shame that keep people from seeking help and being honest, it is possible to strain out a gnat and swallow a camel if we take the language of “chemical imbalances” too far and put personal responsibility out of reach for those who suffer from mental illness.

In the end, both the people who wish to eradicate shame from mental illness and those who wish to use it as a hammer for every health-related nail they see will find themselves in conflict with a holistic worldview that embraces the continuity between physical existence, knowledge, indiscernably complex emotions, and meaningful spirituality. The bodies that God created us with are prone to the corruption of sin in ways that science can both illuminate, abet, or help to heal– but only if we can appreciate the full complement of healing means that He has given us.