Announcing Davenant House

One of the long-term interests of Mere Orthodoxy has been trying to revitalize Christian discourse online in ways that move beyond the categories commonly used in conversations about world-view. Though the world-view critics are not always presenting the movement as fairly as they perhaps could, the criticisms raised by Alissa Wilkinson in this review of Saving Leonardo are still essentially correct.

Toward that end, I’m excited to announce to Mere O readers the launch of a new project I’ve been blessed to be part of—Davenant HouseDavenant House is a new Christian study center operated by the Davenant Trust located in the foothills of the Blue Mountains in upstate South Carolina. (Disclosure: I am a board member and serve as the secretary for the Davenant Trust.) Continue reading

Leaving Difficult Churches III: On Spiritual Abuse, Community, and the Internet

It’s not unusual to hear the internet likened to the printing press in terms of its ability to disrupt cultural norms and make it possible to spread ideas in previously unimaginable ways. And so far as it goes, this is a fine comparison. Ask any journalist and they can tell you about the internet’s disruptive power relative to the printed word. (After you ask them that, you should probably buy them a drink.)

But this comparison can also run foul in several important ways. Most notably, it can implicitly reduce the internet to being little more than an updated take on the printing press: It’s a medium predominately used for the spread of ideas conveyed via the written word. It just uses different tools to do that which happen to be more efficient than the tools available via the printing press.

But the internet is far more than a tool for spreading ideas, as anyone who has spent five minutes on social media (or YouTube) well knows. It is also a tool for cultivating identity and joining communities.

For example, I’m on an email list with a bunch of other Christians that discusses any number of different topics. That membership is part of my identity online and is known to any other members of the group. It’s not fully public since it’s an email list, but it is also not private in the way that writing a letter to a friend is.

But in addition to these acts which explicitly link us to a community are the many things we do which implicitly tie us to one group or another in that they are public actions done in the sight of many. When I “like” the official page of my favorite Premier League team, I am not only signing up to receive updates via Facebook from Tottenham Hotspur. I’m also implicitly announcing to anyone who is connected to me on Facebook that I am a fan of Tottenham Hotspur (and that any Arsenal fans can go jump in a lake while singing that totally obnoxious Gi-roud song they all seem to love).

All the things we do on social media thus have an added layer of meaning beyond that of the specific act itself because everything we do on social media is essentially building our “brand” as an individual on the internet. When I share a Ross Douthat column on Facebook I am not simply sharing reading material with people; I am advertising to anyone who can see my Facebook page that I, at the very least, like this particular argument or column or essay by Ross Douthat.

Realistically, few followers will treat individual posts this carefully. They will see that posting, particularly if they have seen me post other Douthat pieces, as a more general statement about my beliefs, my fondness for Ross Douthat, or my general agreement with his Christian communitarian sensibilities. I am, as it were, creating a character called “Jake Meador” that will exist in the minds of people who follow me or are connected to me on social media.

This character that we create online will exist not entirely separate from our daily life in our local places, but also not entirely in sync with it either. You aren’t a wholly different person online, but your online life can exist parallel to your life rather than being within it or on top of it, as it were. As a result, the person we are online will, over time, begin to shape who we are offline which will, in turn, reinforce our online persona. This persona we cultivate online will exist in a kind of suspended reality removed from the economies of our daily lives. By “economies” I mean simply the relationships, customs, and networks that shape our relationship to the material world.

And this is the key point: Communities embedded in local economies shape you as a person in ways fundamentally different than the shaping that happens in online communities. Communities belonging to a local economy will force you to associate with and meet with people you would not otherwise know if left only to your own devices.

To take one trivial example, back in college my friends from my campus ministry and I would go out for a smoke after large group because we were Christian hipsters and I’m sorry please stop judging me. (I would tell you what ministry we were with but if you know anything about evangelical campus ministries you can probably guess.) The smoker’s area outside the student union was relatively small, however, and so we often ended up sharing the space with kids from the campus newspaper.

So for 15 minutes on Thursday evenings, the evangelical Christians and the non-religious campus newspaper kids (who often would make fun of the evangelicals) would share that space and actually have to be around each other and see what the other group is really like. (We didn’t talk much to each other and I doubt anything came from it, but even so, we saw more of each other there than we would anywhere else.)

And when you actually have a specific person in mind when you think about a group of people (rather than some vague, disembodied entity that is RUINING AMERICA) it forces you to actually reckon with your neighbors as neighbors and not as some impersonal force that you insult on social media in your spare time.

At its best, these encounters can create humility in us by showing us all the things we don’t know about that group and it can make us more empathetic as we actually get to know them and see them as a human being with whom we share a surprising amount of things.

This point is, incidentally, one of the main factors many people mention explaining how rapidly our culture has shifted in its views of marriage. As we saw more shows like Will and Grace and patronized businesses owned by gay or lesbian individuals we were forced to see these people primarily as human beings rather than as some sort of unspeakable monster. And that empathetic encounter combined with the implicitly genderless understanding of marriage that we already had made a cultural shift on marriage almost inevitable.

All of this is necessary background as we consider the rise of virtual communities of church leavers that exist online. In previous posts in this series, I mentioned that one of the chief difficulties for people who leave unhealthy churches is in finding community after they leave. Often churches like the ones being discussed in this series are heavily insular and, as long as you’re in, do community life really really well. So leaving them is incredibly difficult, if for no other reason than the fact that you’re leaving behind what may well be the only community you have.

This is where the internet comes in: Because the internet makes it very easy to join affinity- or experience-based communities, many people who leave difficult or dysfunctional churches find each other online either via blogs maintained by the professionally disillusioned or through sites intended to reach people in their specific situation.

In one sense, searching out these communities is a normal, understandable move for anyone who has just left a difficult church. Having been there myself I know how confused and alone one can feel during that time. It’s natural to want to find others who have been there and ask them for help. But joining these online communities can be a fraught thing for all the reasons discussed above.

Because these groups all exist online, rather than being grounded in true local economies of some kind, the communities can easily come to be defined and constrained by the aggrieved status their members wish to claim for themselves. And this has many disastrous consequences. In the first place, anyone who is seen as being responsible for the real or perceived injustice a member has experienced can quickly become something less than human. If you’ve read Frank Schaeffer’s writings on the men his father associated with in his later years, you’ve seen how this works. Matthew Paul Turner’s Churched is much the same, but may be even pettier than Schaeffer’s recent writings. But secondly, and more important still, because this community is removed from local economies there probably are not going to be personal encounters that happen that would challenge the truncated portrayal of other groups of people.

If I’m an evangelical Christian who eats at the local vegan place semi-regularly because they make amazing soup, I’ll actually get to know the people who work there and maybe will stop seeing them as an imminent threat to life and liberty. We’ll see each other and maybe even begin to trust each other. Or, if I’m a gay-rights activist who meets an executive from Chick-fil-a I might actually start to see him as a human being who can care about me as an individual, even while holding to certain views I find abhorrent.

The danger, in short, with turning to the internet to provide a therapeutic salve to one’s soul after leaving a difficult church is that disembodied communities can only do certain things. They are good for brief discussions of shared personal experiences and for the venting that is sometimes necessary in those groups. They’re also great for exchanging and debating ideas. There is, to be sure, much that they can do. But they typically cannot create the sort of interactions that help us to actually see and love our neighbor, even if they are different than us and, especially, even if they have wronged us.

On Loving and Hating Places

There are a few more things that need to be said as we wrap up this week’s Crump-related fun. (And no, I did not watch last night’s debate so do not ask me about it. I was busy playing Football Manager and reading Anthony Esolen.)

There is a way of opposing the political establishment that really is nihilistic and conservatives have been very good at it in recent years. Indeed, there is almost certainly a strong link between the success of the professional malcontents on the right like Rush Limbaugh and the ascent of candidates like Crump. That is what we need to avoid now. Continue reading

The Undead Religious Right: Why I Cannot Support Ted Cruz

It is a well-known story: The Religious Right first galvanized around Ronald Reagan in 1980. Their ascent was over by 1988, when Pat Robertson’s failed campaign divided its constituency and the Moral Majority was dissolved. But the obituary was premature. Robertson’s campaign rose from the grave as the Christian Coalition, which handed out over 30 million voter guides to help usher in a Republican Congress and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” securing the Religious Right’s influence on the American political landscape for at least the next decade. George W. Bush (in)famously made evangelicals central to his campaign in 2000 and 2004; by the time his tenure was complete, the “Religious Right” had morphed into “social conservatism” and stories of its demise began reappearing, thanks to the ascendance of Barack Obama and a hopeful media obsession with the moderatish, rapidly maturing “young evangelicals.” In both 2008 and 2012, social conservatives were too divided to do much more than give Huckabee and Santorum the appearance of being serious contenders without any of the substance. In the years since, the stream of stories about the end of the religious right has became a flood, thanks in part the resolution of the gay rights marriage dispute in Obergefell. Continue reading

Should Evangelicals Hijack Black Lives Matter?

I’m pleased to run this guest post today from my friend Steven Wedgeworth. You can learn more about him in his bio below or follow him on twitter @wedgetweets.

The recent discussion over InterVarsity’s Urbana conference and the Black Lives Matter movement has been becoming more and more lively. Jake Meador wrote an overview of the developments here, and in some ways this essay could be understood as a sympathetic but critical engagement with his sentiments. One barrier, however, to this sort of conversation is the perpetual problem of definitions. Are we sure that everyone involved in the conversation knows what “Black Lives Matter” is? Are we talking about the same thing at all? Continue reading

Reviewing John Wilsey’s “American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion”

I’m pleased to publish this guest review today by Hillsdale College visiting professor Dr. Miles Smith. You can learn more about Dr. Smith from his bio below this post. You can also follow him on Twitter @IVMiles

A book exploring the idea of American exceptionalism is especially timely in a year when the political realm has been captured, or at least invaded, by a man promising to Make America Great again. For many Americans, especially American Evangelicals, the notion that America is great is synonymous with the notion that America is exceptional. Few American Evangelicals, after all, believe that the United States is exceptionally bad. John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion is written for the educated Evangelical layman and proves to be earnest attempt to reevaluate the idea of American exceptionalism from a Christian perspective. Continue reading

On InterVarsity and Black Lives Matter

Over the holiday break a small storm in the evangelical blogosphere broke out over Intervarsity’s recent endorsement of Black Lives Matter at their annual Urbana event. Most notably, many commented on the speech given by Michelle Higgins, director of Faith for Justice and a worship leader at South City Church in St Louis. (I suppose I should mention at this point that three of my closest friends attend South City and I’ve been there for worship once and was richly blessed by both Michelle’s work leading worship and by the sermon given by her father, who is also the senior pastor at the church.)

You can see Michelle’s speech below the jump:
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Neo-Anabaptists and the Benedict Option

One of the underlying questions behind much of Rod Dreher’s discussion of the Benedict Option so far concerns how we ought to think about a limited withdrawal from mainstream America in order to protect ourselves as orthodox believers against “corrosive modernity,” as Rod has put it.

There are many aspects to this question but one of the most important is this: Is the BenOp a short-term tactical maneuver to correct for unique contextual issues concerning the western church’s immediate situation or is it a more long-term, normative move meant as a sort of repentance for how the western church has related to mainstream culture?

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Leaving Difficult Churches II: Common Objects of Love

In a piece for Fare Forward on the Benedict Option David Clark emphasized the importance for BenOp communities of having a defined good which would focus and define the community. If BenOp communities withdraw for purely negative reasons, they will wither. Any sort of cultural withdrawal, whatever that term might mean, must flow out of something deeper than fear and aversion to certain emerging cultural norms. To survive, these communities must begin with love and a desire to take hold in a deeper way of some common object of love which unites them.

At root, this is an Augustinian argument—we as individuals and the communities to which we belong are shaped by our loves. Indeed, this is not simply a question for BenOp communities, but for every human being—what things will you love? What loves will you share with your family, friends, neighbors, city, and nation? A healthy nation, of course, would be one with common objects of love that are actually worthy of being loved. Continue reading

Leaving Unhealthy Churches I: Why It’s Hard to Leave

October marked ten years since I left the fundamentalist church I grew up in. In a strange coincidence of timing, the November 23 issue of the New Yorker (one month to the day since the tenth anniversary of my leaving) ran an interview with Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of Westboro Baptist founding pastor Fred Phelps.

Phelps-Roper is the daughter of Shirley Phelps-Roper, who for a time was the church’s public face which also meant that Megan was often given a prominent role to play in the cult’s life and work, particularly on social media. In a video interview accompanying the series, Phelps-Roper spoke beautifully about what may be the most difficult part about leaving a difficult church situation or cult, both before you actually leave and after. Continue reading