Our Culture of Reading and the End of Dialogue: An Essay

Christians are a people of the book, a people whose lives are formed and shaped by their encounters and interactions with a God whose works have been manifested in the words that bear witness to them. The early Christians understood this, which is partly why they paired the transmission of the Scriptures with their evangelistic zeal. The number of manuscripts we have of the Bible from that era far exceeds any other books, in part because Christians cared so deeply about getting the Word out that they eagerly got the words that bear witness to Jesus out as well.

We live in the paradoxical world, though, where the volume of books is matched only by that of the handwringing about whether anyone is reading them. The explosion in books may actually have little to do with the internet. Richard Nash points out that between the 1980s and 2010 the number of books published annually jumped from 80,000 to 328,259 (a surprisingly precise figure). And while worries about reading are not a recent phenomenon—Rudolph Flesch’s influential Why Johnny Can’t Read was published back in 1955—things haven’t much improved since then. The average reading level for students in high school is just barely above the fifth grade. Students may be reading as much, but they’re obviously not reading as well as they used to. The same study found that between 1907 and 2012 the complexity level of books assigned in high school plummeted.1 Even if we read more as a culture we do not read as well.

But a people whose curriculums are shot through with Shakespeare will have more tools to deeply understand the world than those who are assigned The Hunger Games, however enjoyable they might be or well they might be written. The plays can be tough reading and the pleasures and joys deferred until a re-reading (or, in some cases, a re-re-reading). And the work required to understand them is considerably greater than that which contemporary fiction demands of us, if only because of the gap between Shakespeare’s time and ours. We should struggle through books like Shakespeare because the sort of understanding about the world that we need often doesn’t come on a first read of it, but on a third or fourth. Confronting a text whose meaning is initially obscure to us and being impelled to press onward, to work and think and wrestle, gives us the sort of discipline and training that genuine wisdom demands.

As we move into a world where people can no longer read deeply or well, Christians will be in a territory we have charted once before but have long forgotten. We may be a people of the book, but we are not a people who thinks that book’s meaning is easily or quickly grasped. The perspicuity of Scripture, or the idea that Scripture’s meaning would be clear to anyone, never entailed that it could be grasped on a first reading. And we even have a Bible verse to prove the case. 2 Peter 3:16 notes that “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort.” In a world that struggles to understand Shakespeare, we have Biblical reasons to think we will do no better with the Apostle.

Yet it is not simply reading that is imperiled. A culture where reading is in decline will be a culture where inquiry and learning struggle as well, and the possibility of genuine and meaningful dialogue with those who we disagree will erode too. There is a fundamental connection between how we take in the world around us and sort through it internally and how we participate in conversations with those around us. As our culture reads more poorly, it will speak more poorly and respond more impatiently and less charitably.

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Perhaps no part of Scripture is as insistent on the value of words to the Christian life as the Gospel According to John. The book opens with the magisterial identification of Jesus and the logos, the “Word,” a term that is as difficult to understand as any in Scripture. Yet throughout the Gospel, John highlights the value of the words that Jesus says and implicitly underscores the unique importance of the words he is writing that communicate them. In John 6, a controversial passage in recent church history, Jesus points out that the Spirit is the one who gives life, and that “the words that I have spoken to [the disciples] are spirit and life” (John 6:63b). Jesus qualified his famous line that “the truth will set you free” with the condition that it will happen “If you abide in [his] word” (John 8:31). In John 15, the symmetry of Christ abiding in us and us abiding in him is disrupted by the asymmetry of us abiding in Christ and Christ’s words abiding in us as the premise for power in prayer. Those words, interestingly, conspicuously stand in the very spot in the story where every other Gospel records Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper. And in closing the Gospel, John himself point toward the truthfulness of his written testimony and its limitedness: “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (John 21:24-25).

There are two metaphors for what happens in reading a text like Scripture: on the one hand, we take it into ourselves and make it a part of us. The words abide in us, make their home in us, rearranging our thoughts and reframing how we see things. On the other hand, we enter into a world that the words create. There is a certain self-forgetfulness that happens in reading, particularly when we read fiction or read books that we struggle to understand. This is true of reading Scripture, too: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” is not a sentence that has anything to do with us, at least not immediately. Only by entering the universe John points to with his words can we properly come to understand them.

On both metaphors, though, how we read a text significantly affects how it changes us. There is no substitute for slow, unhurried lingering over the words of a book—abiding, we might say—to come to grips with its subtleties, its nuances, and its depth. When we marinate ourselves in a text, we begin to think thoughts after the author—for good or ill. James Gray, an evangelical theologian whose career spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, once commended reading the same book of the Bible over and over again to master it (or rather, to have it master us) instead of simply reading through the whole thing.5 When Fred Sanders reminded us of the passage, one writer–my brother– humorously decided to test out the thesis by doing the same with Ralph Waldo Emerson, and spent his time thinking Emersonly about the world. Emerson isn’t the writer I’d commend starting with, but he makes the point well: words will change us, but only if we give them the time and space to do their work within us.

Abiding in a text, though, and allowing words to abide in us demands an attentiveness and care that we seem to increasingly struggle with. When we return again and again to a text, we may eventually get bored with it—but in doing so, we place ourselves in a situation where we can notice what we have not noticed before. By exhausting what we have to say about a text, we reach the point where we can open ourselves to something it might have to say to us. Continue reading

Special Feature: Why I am Opposed to Gay Marriage

b&wHands

Preface

“I will always love you.”

Many of us don’t remember the first time we felt such a sentiment; some of us may have never felt it at all. If we first encountered it in our youth, as most do, we were probably advised not to consider it very closely. The first word the sixteen-year-old in love hears is that the emotions will not last, that love is a choice, that the heart is untrustworthy, that he really should give the whole business some time. It is the responsibility of adults to help the young direct their erotic impulses, but it is easier and safer to destroy them altogether. Love is intoxicating. And it should be, for it moves us to willingly take on obligations and commitments that help make us adults. Only the one thing the young lovers want in the midst of their rapture—for it to go on, always—is the one thing our society tells him will never happen.

The torrents of passion the sexual revolution released are now receding, leaving behind the ruins and rubble of broken lives and homes. We once thought we might have all the feelings of love without any of the boundaries; but by trying to set eros free, we instead shattered it. Once eros became a god, he laughingly absconded. It is in his nature to do so. Eros awakens us to mystery, and now that we have broken all the taboos, there is nothing left to enchant.

Except perhaps glittery vampires. The Greeks worshipped the deathless gods; Stephenie Meyer made teenagers love the benevolent undead. The intense longing and passions of eros depends upon the presence of an always and of boundaries, a combination that Twilight amplified and exploited.

Because there is nothing sacred left to profane, at least in matters of sex, amplifying love’s rules and costs is the only way to keep meaning alive. Unfettered sex might sound “fun,” but sexual pyrotechnics without sharp boundaries eventually lose their luster. We don’t have romantic comedies any more because there is no romance to lampoon. It is the absence of erotic desire that is now our grave social crisis, not its presence.

In our response to the great crisis of marriage, social conservatives have frequently objected to how emotional construals of love and romance have overwhelmed the institutional, covenantal, or procreative aspects of marriage. We have chastened against grounding the commitment of marriage in our feelings, have objected to ‘merely emotional’ unions, and have argued our society is besotted by ‘companionate models of marriage.’

Such critiques are aimed at showing how our changing intuitions around love and romance have stripped the power from the traditional view of marriage. They are meant to counterbalance and reframe the emotions of love, not to undermine them.

But it is with eros that I want to begin, with all the sentiments and the yearnings and the hopes and dreams that make it easy to roll our eyes at googly-eyed teenagers.

For it is in marriage—and marriage alone—that eros finds its consummation and discovers resources for its ongoing renewal. Eros can destabilize us and make us go topsy, but it also helps us see why marriage matters. There is only an adventure if we accept its dangers. And marriage is a good great enough to justify its demands. Continue reading

You can watch ‘The Cost of Freedom’ right now

No, really. You can.

Matt told you all about the event last week. If you receive Mere-O Monthly in your inbox, you saw something like this, where I told you about the event. You may have even seen Trevin Wax write about it for The Gospel Coalition. Or (I know, we’re reaching a lot of these sources, but the event really was spectacular), perhaps you saw folks talking about it on Twitter.

No matter how you heard about it, the event was last night. While it was quite a sight to see in person, and likely a fun experience to watch live, we’ve got you covered. Now you can enjoy this video right here, right now. And, it’s Friday. Treat yourself to a great conversation. You won’t regret it.

What Zlatan Ibrahimovic Taught Me About Enchantment

It’s a commonplace amongst a certain type of trad conservative to talk about the need to “re-enchant” our understanding of the world. What they usually mean by this is some version of an argument, influenced deeply by Charles Taylor, that we moderns experience creation as something near to us and mostly comprehensible. There is little mysterious about it and what little that is mysterious today likely won’t be tomorrow.

Within such a context, religious belief can seem like a mere personal vanity at best and as something foreign, insensible, and dangerous at worst. And so we religious types need to find ways of reenchanting creation so that we can see it with the sense of awe that came to us so naturally before the scientific revolution.

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The Cost of Freedom

Let’s start with where we all, I think, can agree:  right now, there is a great deal of conflict and disagreement over what justice requires and what freedom should look like.

The religious liberty throw-down that we’ve recently experienced is only one instance of a wider set of conflicts.  There are questions about what “political correctness” hath wrought, or what kinds of mercies should be afforded those who err in public.  There are disputes about the kinds of liberties college campuses should have. Even our video game “industry” has been in the middle of a convoluted and terrible dispute.

We feel the disagreements very sharply, in other words, and it can be tempting to bemoan the death of any kind of unified civic life that doesn’t have to do with sports or our love of certain movies (as important as they are).  It’s tempting to think we need to have more in common, before we can even begin to speak properly about a common good. 

To these challenges, though, I would add one more:  a steady and unstoppable onslaught of words, which aggravates the problem by making it harder for everyone to find or discover wisdom.  (Yes, I am a part of that problem.  Yes, I do think often about whether I should stop writing.  No, that’s not an invitation for you to tell me otherwise.)

So when we have opportunities to hear directly from the wise, we would be foolish not to take them. On April 30th, at Biola University, there is just such a chance.  Robert George, Cornel West, and Rick Warren are going to be talking about the nature of the freedom we should seek and the kind of people we need to be to discover it, and we have the chance to listen in.  Each are well-known in their own right: to have them talking together, though, is a unique opportunity.

Full disclosure: I am currently being paid by the Torrey Honors Institute to help them market the event, so you can dismiss me if you want.  But I wrote a book that was basically a long sales pitch for the Institute (which they did not ask me to do), and I don’t do work that I can’t entirely, unequivocally support.  What’s more, this is just the kind of thing that the Institute does: host interesting dialogues among people who disagree.

And besides, this is an easy event to get excited about.  I mean, look at Cornel West’s Wikipedia page.  It’s long.  Robert George was once described as America’s leading conservative thinker…by the New York Times. Rick Warren has come as close as anyone to outselling Jesus.  Even if you don’t like any one of them, how can you not be intrigued by the three of them, together, in one conversation?  That’s got to be at least interesting, right?

The Cost of Freedom

If you know someone in Los Angeles, tell them to get a ticket.  If you’re not in LA, watch the livestream.  And join the conversation on Twitter or elsewhere, as we try to think together and–if we’re lucky–talk together about what freedom costs.

The Marriage Pledge and the Libertarian Solution to the Marriage Debate

Over at First Things the Revs. Christopher Seitz and Ephraim Radner have published a document called The Marriage Pledge. The gist of it can be summed up as follows:

Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.

You can read the whole thing and see a list of signers, which includes Peter Leithart, here. Tristyn Bloom reported on the pledge for the Daily Caller and you can read her piece on it here.

There’s a sense in which this move is understandable. CS Lewis after all had very similar thoughts 60 years ago in the post-war years in Britain when he proposed a similar solution in Mere Christianity:

Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is quite the different question-how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christian and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

It’s perhaps also worth noting that both Revs Seitz and Radner are currently living in Canada, which on matters of sex ethics has been far more hostile thus far to orthodox Christians than the United States. So this move may not simply be a form of protest against the current order, but also an attempt to put a bit of distance between the church and the public square so as to protect the church from possible legal consequences for maintaining an orthodox view on sexuality and marriage.

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The American Conservative’s Case Against the Suburbs

The American Conservative has opened up a new front in the decades-old War on Suburbia. This attack, purportedly, comes from the Right.

Reagan and Kirk (photo courtesy Annette Kirk, Russell Kirk Center)

Suburban Critics?

In the past month, the magazine has launched two broadsides on this topic. Rod Dreher composed an ode to Philip Bess’ “New Urbanism of the Soul” and Charles Marohn published “The Conservative Case Against the Suburbs.” After reading both articles, I found my conservative soul unstirred. Ultimately, it is unclear if either Bess or Marohn are espousing “conservative” principlesat least how that term is usually defined in the American political discoursefor they oppose suburbs on hierarchical and elitist grounds. Theirs is not an American conservative case against the suburbs. If anything, it may be something of a European conservative case against the suburbs. But, ultimately even if some of their these arguments would have resonated with Prince Metternich, their purchase in the American political debate is lacking.

 

Thomistic New Urbanism

The way Dreher frames Philip Bess’s work begins to highlight this disconnect. Bess is introduced as a Catholic professor of architecture at Notre Dame from where he has focused his urban design efforts on the After Burnham project, which “imagines what Chicago—given its current architectural, social, and environmental order—might look like 100 years hence if the next century is informed by classical humanist urbanism and Catholic social teaching.” Such a grandiose project of central planning sounds exactly like the kind of thing the Habsburgian bureaucracy would undertake.

Dreher also explains that Bess is both a convert to Roman Catholicism and a convert to New Urbanism and that the two conversions are not merely coincidental. Continue reading

The Death of Adulthood

We’ve reached the end of adulthood in America according to AO Scott. Or at least of the patriarchal version of it, anyway, which Scott sees in three paradigmatic dramas of our era—Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, whose protagonists and their downfalls allow us to “marvel at the mask of masculine incompetence even as we watched it slip or turn ugly.”  On Scott’s reading, “in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grownups.”  It’s a provocative, sweeping hypothesis of the sort that are useful for engendering conversations, even if it doesn’t stand up under analysis.

And it may not:  David Marcus intemperately lambastes the essay, describing Scott’s style as “equal parts snobbery and self-effacement,” and his thesis a “crisis of the elites” rather than of “common folks.” Marcus presses the details of Scott’s historical case, and at some points makes appropriate corrections:  Scott’s description of the ‘Founding Fathers’, for instance, as “late adolescents” conflates rebellion against a paternalism of political authority with a dismissal of paternal authority per se, a move that at best seems highly tendentious without any further justification for it.

But on other points, Marcus (weirdly) buttresses Scott’s case even while attempting to dismiss it. As Marcus writes, “The last sitcom dad to get any kind of vaunted respect was Hugh Beaumont in ‘Leave it to Beaver.’” Technically, I suppose this contradicts Scott’s thesis that the past decade of television signals the “end of an era.”  But that the symptoms were present in previous generations isn’t exactly encouraging news, and makes me disposed to think that even if Mad Men is more the fruit of a long degeneration rather than an epochal revolution, Scott’s main point that we have a crisis of adulthood has some merit to it.

Yes, it is tempting to speak as though nothing in our culture has changed.  Every age has its antecedents, after all. We can speak of contemporary movie violence as though it is a Brand New Thing, but have you seen Titus Andronicus? Everyone dies, and in the most horrific of ways. Was that an outlier, or was the range of ‘acceptable’ simply that broad? If we take the movies as indicative of anything about a culture—and I’ll need some persuading that we shouldn’t—it’s hard for me to imagine Billy Madison or Borat finding a meaningful audience within the same culture that made and enjoyed Leave it to Beaver. The “Overton Window” for acceptable behaviors on screen has shifted, and certainly that means something. 

Ignoring that shift, and so leaving it unexplained, is the weakest part of Marcus’s response. He may consider the crisis of adulthood to be an “elite” phenomenon, a symptom of a liberal progressivism which wants its liberation and equality while having its dignity too.  Yes, NCIS is popular:  but so is Castle, and is there a show that better highlights the kind of adolescent-adulthood that is, for many young men, aspirational?  And “bro comedies” exist, which Scott deploys but Marcus does not mention. The aforementioned television dramas may have relatively small audiences: but a culture is made of its comedies as well, and on Scott’s hypothesis the emasculation of men in our highbrow dramas and the crass, juvenile antics of our cheap comedies are but two sides of the same adolescent coin.

Scott himself is aggravatingly ambivalent about these changes (contra Marcus’s description of him as “rooting for it”), even to the point of incoherent. “Just as men passed through the stage of sincere rebellion to arrive to a stage of infantile refusal,” he writes, “so, too, have the women progressed by means of regression.” I think that’s supposed to be an artful phrase, but what on earth does it mean?  Have there been benefits to the new culture?  Unquestionably.  But for whom, and at what cost?  If Scott’s own thesis is right, we can have our liberation from the patriarchy and all the benefits that accrue to women, but apparently only at the expense of everyone’s adulthood.  (Or that has been the cost, anyway:  we may be able to conceive of a different path to where we’ve come, now that we are looking back upon it.) Still, is there a point where the cost for such “progress” becomes simply too high to pay?  It’s not fashionable for Scott to shout “get off my lawn”, but progressives are not immune to the possibility of “buyer’s remorse.” Scott’s piece reads like someone who has woken up to what the progressive cultural temperament has wrought, and is somewhat unsettled by it.

My initial disposition, unlike Marcus’ slash-and-burn approach, is to welcome Scott as a potential cultural ally:  “Come on in, sir, the conservative water is fine.”  Or something like that. It ought to be a welcome sign that an admittedly progressive writer at the New York Times has been reduced to sounding crankier than many conservatives manage to. In this world, we cannot have too many allies.

But more interesting, and difficult, questions emerged once my smug schaudenfreude passed:  I mean, it’s great and all to point to the costs of our current culture, but we clearly aren’t going back. Manhood will inevitably take its form now in a “post-patriachal” age, and that has to mean something for how conservatives think of and conceive of adulthood.  Even if we think that the forces that undermined adulthood in America are rotten to the core, we’re all living in the environment they created. And neither Marcus’ optimistic account that the death of adulthood has been “greatly exaggerated” or my gut “we told you so” meaningfully solve the more pressing question of what shape adulthood should take in a world of creeping adolescence, and where the pressures on men and women are different than any they’ve known before.**

*Yes, Castle has the luxury to play with his toys and hard-working ‘Muricans don’t have time to worry about the death of adulthood. But toys and fun are what we want these days, even if we have to spend our days working to get them.

** This is a generalized claim, which may or may not be true about any particular person or even specific sub-communities.

Respectability and the Plausibility of Orthodoxy

One point that deserves special mention with the ongoing conversation about “respectable” Christianity concerns the plausibility of “orthodoxy” in the minds of many of our non-Christian neighbors. One of the unique challenges facing Christianity in the coming years is that the very notion of religious orthodoxy doesn’t really make sense to many contemporary Americans.

We understand the idea of orthodoxy in some spheres, particularly in politics. Most Americans would find it quite odd if, for example, a gun-loving libertarian wanted to run for the Senate as a Democrat. We recognize that in politics certain beliefs tend to belong to certain groups. So if you favor a single payer healthcare system, that’s fine, but you probably should hang out with the Democrats rather than the Republicans. But we generally don’t have a similar understanding of this when it comes to religious identity.

Part of the issue, no doubt, is that many strands of American Christianity have defined themselves more in terms of methods and techniques for doing ministry rather than well-defined theological creeds. As a result, many Christian young people have grown up in the church without developing a robust understanding of Christian theology or why we do the things we do.

A related issue is the problem of how many churches have tended to fall back on business jargon as a way of talking about church life, which merely makes explicit the sense that Christian faith isn’t really about articles of belief so much as it is about achieving certain results for yourself and your community. This is one of the troubling under-currents to the ongoing Mark Driscoll saga, for instance, as Doug Wilson wisely noted in his post on the issue last week.

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