Belated thoughts on the Duck Dynasty Kerfuffle

The kerfuffle that Phil Robertson stirred up is now over, and as in all such matters it’s hard to avoid the sense that we are all the worse for it. Most everyone I know has reached the point of total exhaustion on the subject, and understandably so. But that’s what happens when rampant curiosity drives our intellectual pursuits: we rush in, plunder, and then move on. But sometimes there are things to be learned only after the crowds leave.

It’s hard to imagine a dispute that encapsulates the hilarious oddities of our age better than that which played out in the middle of the Advent season. In retrospect, the whole thing seems patently bizarre: I sat down to write about it several times, started to type “Duck Dynasty,” and promptly gave up. Athanasasius took on the Arians. Augustine fought Pelagius. Our grandparents defeated the Nazi’s, while our parents grew up in the shadow of Communism. Us, well, we get to parse the words of a reality TV star who makes an awfully effective duck call. I’d try to write a parody, but I’m not a good enough wordsmith for that. Simple description seems ludicrous enough.

The episode’s folly was exacerbated by the drab, joyless atmosphere that pervaded the whole affair. One side responded to his remarks with outrage, while the other defended him in kind. Oh, A&E laughed, for sure, “all the way to the bank” (as they say). And I suspect the family at the center had a good chuckle over the whole business. But few of us did.

We have no one to blame for the media maelstrom but ourselves, and we are all implicated. It does little good to point out (as many evangelicals, conservative or otherwise have) that it’s hard to take Robertson seriously as a “martyr” when there are real Christian martyrs in the world. Against such a backdrop, we ought to be as disturbed that “reality TV” exists at all. If the thing is worth watching, then its stars are doubtlessly worth defending.  But the ability to make that point and have it “liked” by others on Facebook is a luxury good as well. This is a dispute that belongs to a decadent age, and taking to our “platforms” to critique those who were distraught about it because there is bodily suffering elsewhere simply will not do. It’s hard to take any of the commentary seriously when compared to those who are dying for the faith, including the commentary that so earnestly points it out.

Still, as irrelevant as it might seem in the context of life and death, there was something at stake in the decision to suspend Robertson for his remarks. American Christians won’t face pyres or lions, but we may nicked away into irrelevance by a thousand paper cuts while we all shout “peace, peace” the whole while. Our culture war may be dominated by trivialities. But it is no less the warfare for it. The despotic tendencies of our bureucratic state may not lead to prison or death, but a soft despotism is despotic nonetheless. I understand why many young evangelicals have little patience for conservative concerns. Paper cuts are easy to ignore, and any aggregate case is easy to object to in the details. But that doesn’t mean the narrative is false—only that it’s difficult to prove.

After all, to cop a line from young evangelicals, if “politics is downstream from culture” than what precisely are conservatives supposed to make of A&E’s initial decision to suspend Robertson? Is it a harbinger of things to come from our political powers? Or if not this, at what point will it be appropriate for conservatives to be concerned? Young evangelicals who have made a business out of distancing ourselves from the political concerns of our parents have every reason to go on thinking that conservative concern about such cultural moments is one giant overreaction. Which is why more evidence that such moments constitute a trend cannot prove the point: the narrative is already set, and each piece of data is simply further evidence that the conservative sound and fury still signifies nothing.

It is true that Robertson’s comments were “crude,” or “coarse” as the family’s statement put it. Yet since I’m in a mischievous mood, I’d point out that Robertson deployed just the sort of anatomical language that young evangelicals have touted as the mark for “real talk” about sex. I’m half inclined to say that Robertson’s comments are a classic reminder that we ought all be more careful what we wish for. As I have never thought that sounding like doctors within the church is a sign of our maturity, I enjoy the freedom to disagree with everyone: I have no interest in defending Robertson’s comments, about sex or on race, but given how GLAAD responded to Louie Giglio it seems reasonably clear that it wouldn’t much matter how he put the point. A smile and a bit of sophisticated theological jargon can’t stop your bigotry, after all, or so the talking point goes. Had Robertson quoted the Magesterium would things have turned out much differently from how they did?

Still, it’s hard for me to shake the feeling that the whole thing is a farce, and that we are the joke. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” Gandalf says in Lord of the Rings.  It is a petty demagoguery that besets us, as laughably impotent as the people it is trying to repress. We have the culture war we deserve.

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When a Gay Man and an Evangelical Walked into a Bar

It sounds like the setup for a joke, but while there were plenty of laughs we were quite serious about the whole thing.  And CBN was there to watch.

A few months back my friend John Corvino and I did a public discussion on many of the questions relating to gay marriage.  Not only is John a published academic and a prominent participant in the gay marriage debates, but he is also something of a Youtube rockstar.  His video series on the arguments around gay marriage is way more engaging and fun than the series I’ve been cranking out, even if it’s wrong in nearly every way.  (That’s a joke.  He’s right on one or two things.)

Anyways, the whole thing was a fun and interesting conversation hosted by my friends at Midrash.  And the 700 Club was there to report on it, which means that yes, yes I have made my 700 Club debut.  You can hear me make one or two points in the video, but have mercy:  I was barely holding it together due to a sudden onslaught of pneumonia.

I have little to add beyond the video other than to note that the whole thing wasn’t (unfortunately) recorded.  But if you’re interested in having John and I out to repeat the scrum, we’d be happy to take up other offers.

The Questions of Gay Marriage: How serious a concern is homosexuality?

This is the third part of an ongoing series I started a few months back.  You can read the second part here. I am proceeding more slowly than I should, but I am wanting to give myself the space to allow the subject to marinate and to reflect on how I want to proceed.  Your questions and dialogue are (as always!) both most welcome in the comments below.

How important does Scripture seem to think homosexuality is?  It’s common these days to minimize the concern about this particular question before addressing it on grounds that Scripture says very little that is explicit about the subject, even if the now infamous six explicit verses are all negative.

That’s the claim that Richard Hays makes in his massively influential Moral Vision of the New Testament, at any rate.  He suggests there that “In terms of emphasis, [homosexual behavior] is a minor concern—in contrast, for example, to economic injustice.”

Hays goes on to argue for a traditional view of the question; but it seems this is a point where his methodology betrays him into misconstruing the text.  It may be the case that the importance of a respective issue could be determined by counting up the number of verses where it is mentioned explicitly.  But for someone with an otherwise incredibly sophisticated way of reading Scripture, that approach seems far too blunt.  That humans are created in the “image of God” is not a claim that fills many verses in the Bible; its importance for Christian theological reflection far exceeds its frequency.

What sort of background we compare those six verses to will determine what sort of distortion our inquiry into the subject will suffer from.  It is probably true that conservatives have overemphasized those six verses.  But the most problematic distortion is not simply that they have not talked enough about money, but that they have not properly located those six verses within the more fundamental moments of Scripture’s teaching about humanity:  creation and redemption.  Without that backdrop, any sort of moral proclamation about homosexual behavior takes on an exclusively negative character and fails both to offer the word of hope within the moral analysis and to lay bare the reasons beneath such a prohibition.

But if that is right, it may turn out that gay or lesbian behavior is much more than a “minor concern.”  If those six negative judgments—if they are negative judgments on today’s practices—are the exegetical tips of a theological iceberg, then the authors of Scripture may have few reasons to keep stacking such judgments on top of themselves, as the logic of the entire text would move against it.  A community steeped in that logic might need stronger denunciations of certain practices around money, as money is a universal phenomenon that pervades a community.  But while homosexuality is obviously of incredible importance to those who experience same-sex attraction, it does not draw everyone within a community into its orbit the way financial practices do.  But if this is right, then Scripture’s lack of explicit attention to the phenomenon might be an indication that it emerges into the open when the narrative of Scripture has lost its grip on a community.

It’s not clear that a community would have to be strictly a religious community for that to be the case:  it’s indisputable that the Bible has had a pervasive impact on Western society, and the decline in biblical literacy culturally has coincided with the rise in the public sanctioning of same-sex sexual activity and gay rights.  Is it anything more than a correlation?  The causal links may become intelligible if we could grasp the deeper connection between the logic of Scripture’s teaching about human sexuality and its purported negative judgments about homosexuality.

I put this forward by way of an exploratory hypothesis: the above may not hold up upon reconsideration of the texts themselves.  But it is worth bearing in mind, as it highlights the ways in which our exegetical starting points have a considerable influence on how we frame this particular moral question.

Where ought we begin, then, in considering the questions of gay marriage?  My own inclination is to follow the path that Jesus points toward in Matthew 19, and that Paul follows in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6:  the Genesis account.  This pathway has the advantage of being uncompromisingly Biblical and, if you like drawing sharp lines between Jesus and Paul, of being sanctioned by the “red letters” too.  But it also takes us straight to the heart of the matter in such a way that orients our attention away from the negative proposition about same-sex sexual relations toward the particular goodness of heterosexual sexual relations.  Whether that good is exclusively limited to heterosexual unions is a separate question, as is whether discerning it would definitively answer the question of gay marriage.  But neither of those can properly be answered until we first get a grasp on why marriage matters within Genesis to begin with.

It’s also important to note that this sort of exegetical strategy doesn’t stem from any sort of “embarrassment” about the prohibitions in Leviticus because of what we might call the “reductio ad slavery”:  Leviticus prohibits same-sex relationships, but slavery gets endorsed, which means Scripture clearly can’t be trusted.  Sometimes “shellfish” get tossed about, too, since Leviticus ostensibly doesn’t allow them.  But following Jesus behind Leviticus to the norms of human sexuality within Genesis shows just how empty that argument is.

The reasoning is relatively straightforward.  On the traditional reading of the Genesis account—which we will have reason to question—male-female relationships are revealed as normative.  Yet the aforementioned notion that humans are made in the “image of God” makes an appearance as well. What that means is a contest of its own. But the most dominant readings in the Christian tradition start with a shared and equal responsibility before God for all who share that image.  In light of such a fundamental equality, slavery begins to look like the sinful perversion that it is.  There may have been certain compromises to it as an institution within Leviticus, for a variety of reasons and qualified in important ways.  But as Jesus points out in Matthew 19, Moses made compromises on divorce law, too.  Does such a compromise undermine the norm of permanence for traditional Christians’ account of marriage?   Clearly not.  In fact, it is only recognizable as a compromise when people have grasped the norm in such a way that they are able to see the disparity.

But reaching back into Genesis may also have the effect of calling into question the importance of the distinctions between gay and lesbian practices then and now.  The most popular way around those prohibitions has been to say that the New Testament knows nothing of permanent, stable, monogamous gay or lesbian relationships and that its prohibitions don’t apply.  Whatever we make of that argument, it doesn’t matter much for a theological stance toward homosexuality that takes its cues from the account in creation.  If the prohibitionary norms (do not [x]) are themselves tied to and derived from the goods that Scripture purportedly presents as marking off heterosexual relationships, then the quality of those gay or lesbian relationships doesn’t determine their licitness according to Scripture.

That last point, though, needs clarification:  the appeal to Genesis is a doctrinal appeal that isn’t itself derived from anyone’s experiences.  The norms are instead implicit within and grasped within that particular story, that construal of how the world is.  That story establishes the norms for everyone’s relationships; it is the backdrop against which evaluation of our own choices, affections, and thoughts happen.

Whether and when a person or a society’s “experience” (broadly construed at the moment so as to include both personal anecdotes and social scientific evidence) might trump this doctrinal story is an interesting question that I suspect will come up later on.  But the logic of any appeal to Genesis for norms at least initially pushes people’s experiences to the margins, for it is an appeal to a form of relationship that exists before sin enters the world and hence a form of relationship that is necessarily unlike our own.

Such are the limits of appealing to Genesis, though, limits which mean that our understanding of its meaning for today is necessarily incomplete unless we also reflect upon the other pole of Christian theology, the redemptive work of Jesus.  These two loci are not competing:  they are mutually complementary, such that neither can be properly grasped without the other.  Creation is the context wherein the meaning of redemption is grasped; redemption clarifies, restores, and deepens the goodness of the original creation.  Without any integrating both poles of reflection, any account of human sexuality will necessarily be stunted.

Of course, none of this gets us to the actual question of what Genesis 1-3 says about the goods and norms of human sexual relationships.  Instead, it only argues for why we should choose this as a starting point and its limitations.  I’ll turn to that substantive question next time.

Do we Really Need Small Towns?

This bit from my friend Jake Meador’s excellent piece on why we need small towns has lingered with me:

No, we don’t all have to move to small towns to find these communities. But small towns make that sort of community more plausible. Big cities run on transience and mobility. They are filled with rental housing and freeways designed to make movement over large areas easier. And they are supported by an economy that assumes people will switch careers and homes several times in the course of their lives.

In such a world, the memory of small-town life is an antidote to the frantic pace that defines the city and deadens the soul. But with small towns withering away, what will protect us from the hectic, hypermobile life of the city? In a world where so many of us are like Jayber—haunted by the pains inflicted upon us as well as our own sinful heart—where will we go to be healed and restored? How many of us will be given the time to slowly, quietly live out the answers to the most important questions?

My own take on this is similar to what I think about cities and suburbs:  any theologically minded commentary on how we relate to a place, and how places form us, must be unremittingly ambivalent in its approach.  It is true that small towns can make “community more plausible,” as Jake puts it.  But “community” can also become downright hostile to outsiders and overly protective of its own. The recent Maryville horror story–and there is no other word for it–is simply that sort of debased protectiveness magnified to the extreme.  Loving one’s own has real dangers within it, when it is not mediated and transformed by more fundamental loves.  Small towns and cities strike me as equally conducive to virtue, even if their challenges take a very different form.  And yes, all this points to affirming Jake’s fundamental point that we need pastors to go to small towns now more than ever.  As a child of a town of three thousand people, I found Jesus there–and a whole lot else beside.

But then, if what Jake thinks small town life provides is an “antidote to the frantic pace of life that defines the city and deadens the soul,” then I suspect there are no such thing anymore–not with the internet, anyway, and the inescapable mental franticness that the distractions of Facebook and Twitter introduce.  It is doubtlessly the case that for most people in small town, Facebook provides additional texture to their embedded lives, rather than having the sort of globalizing effect that it does for other people.  Yet even so, using them on a smartphone–as nearly everyone these days does, it seems–invariably tears our attention in multiple directions.  It is not the “hectic, hypermobile life of the city” that we need to be concerned about but the online equivalent, which introduces placelessness as a way of life into every community no matter what the size.  We may be given the time to “slowly, quietly live out the answers to the most important questions” (a perhaps very gracious nod to a recent work of mine?).  But few of us will take it.

It’s for this reason that I was happy to see Jake’s wrestling with the way in which the dislocatedness of his writing fits into small town life:

While it’s preferable to have a small town populated with remote workers like Dreher than no small towns at all, I do wonder about the shape of community in a small town where many of the residents draw their livelihoods from work concerned with another place somewhere else. Speaking only for myself as a writer based in Lincoln, NE whose reading habits more closely resemble a resident of Washington DC or New York than my midwestern neighbors, I have real questions about the strength of a community shared by people who share a place but not an economy. My own experience of life in Lincoln suggests that cultivating deep community when people share a place but not an economy may be quite difficult.

The economic point here is a crucial one, as it goes much deeper than simply having a job that pays bills.  Our work entangles us in the world in our entirety, not in part, if we are to do it well.  Our work is a role, yes, but it is a role that we assume without fragmenting ourselves.  We invest ourselves in our work; our work pervades the entirety of our lives, forming our desires and establishing a scope for our interests.  The tension of living in a place and working elsewhere is not simply one of not having to leave our front doors in order to get to the office and so bumping elbows with our neighbors on the way.  Rather, it is a question about where our investments are and what it means to be in a place when such a fundamental mode of our existence takes all our concerns elsewhere.  We can deflate the “economy” so that it is only a transaction of money in exchange for some sort of service; but that may be to enter into a mode of working that lies at the heart of the alienation that many people feel in their lives, to give ourselves over to the very problem that the emphasis on place is meant to address.

Let me put the point differently, then:  if we all need small towns, then we need small town writers whose fundamental interests and concerns are those which describe and recount their places in ways that the rest of us can learn from.  It is not enough to hand out Wendell Berry and consider the work of describing the interests of small-town life done, though Rod Dreher’s Little Way does this too, it seems.  If there is something distinctively good there, some sort of formation that can occur anywhere but which might be especially concentrated in the way of life that is wholly integrated into a small community, then we need writers willing to forgo the temptations of universalism that the internet presents and take up their pen and describe the granular, frequently petty and occasionally heroic forms of life that make small-town life uniquely indispensable.  It may take a form of writing that is as parochially concerned as the people it represents.  But if it is the case that the true wisdom is found within the limiting, narrow particulars of a small-town life, it is just within such parochialism that we will see the world properly.

Otherwise, I may be left wondering whether we really need small towns after all, or whether they too are simply one more place of ambivalence equivalent to all the rest.

Responses to Why We Need Small Towns

small-town NebraskaOne of the frustrations of a short-form essay is that you don’t get to say all the things you’d like to say about the topic. This in turn leads to responses which actually end up saying many of the things you’d have liked to say if only you had more space. So it is with the responses to my Why We Need Small Towns essay published recently at Rod Dreher’s blog and at Brian Gumm’s Restorative Theology.

The essential point raised in both responses is that it’s lovely to speak of the necessity of small-town life and of what small towns can teach us, but if we don’t have a plan for participating in and preserving the economic life of small towns, we are radically unprepared to actually act upon any of our words in any meaningful way. That’s a true point, and certainly one deserving of a response.

To begin, small towns may not be as doomed economically as they’re sometimes made out to be. One of the blessing of the foodie craze is that more and more young people are looking to farm. While it’s true that the food fad has inspired lots of silliness, it has also pushed us toward a greater awareness of our dependence upon creation and our responsibility to steward it affectionately–and for that we ought to give thanks.

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Christian’s Library Press and Oliver O’Donovan

I’m delighted to announce that Christian’s Library Press has signed on as a co-sponsor of our forthcoming event with Oliver O’Donovan.

CLP_Logo4They are doing excellent work retrieving overlooked resources within the Reformed theological tradition, resources that need broader dissemination within the evangelical world–and here’s the kicker–even among the non-Reformed.  I’ve long argued that the doctrine of creation (still!) needs rehabilitating within the evangelical world, which is where many of the resources Christian Library’s Press are going to find their roots.

So please do consider them in your ongoing search for wisdom.

And I do hope that you’ll join us on October 8th, or tell your friends who live in the DC area to come out in your stead.

If you keep up with us here for any length of time in the future, you’ll quickly become acquainted with the work of Oliver O’Donovan. His influence on North American Christianity is often overlooked, but pronounced.  Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio Journal (who is hosting the dialogue) has long been a fan of O’Donovan’s work, and it turns out O’Donovan had an influence on the work of Andy Crouch as well.  I had long suspected that to be the case, given the similarity in their concerns, and so am happy to see Andy mention him in his new book.

This is an opportunity not to be missed.

7:00 PM

The United Methodist Building

100 Maryland Avenue, NE

Washington, DC  20002

 

The Questions of Gay Marriage: An Inquiring Essay, Part One

What should we make of marriage?  Or should we perhaps frame the question differently?  Should we instead take up what marriage makes of us, and so consider ourselves as fundamentally responsive to it rather than creative?  Why does a particular form of relationship deserve the special treatment we afford it?  In what way does the structure of marriage inform a particular life and its prospects?

These questions are perennially interesting and they entangle us all.  Gay, straight, single, married, the childless and parents—even those who permanently deny themselves marriage are, through their negation, shaped by it.  As an institution, marriage provides a unique point of access into the structure of reality.  And of all the subjects we might possibly take up in this world, few bring together the cluster of personal desires, society, law, tradition, history, theology the way this one does (along with many other strands, no doubt).  The sheer collision of the complexity of the issues and their fundamental importance makes the subject an endlessly fertile source for inquiry and understanding.

But my interest in such questions is unremittingly personal as well.  I was not always the happily married man I am today, and my path into this status was anything but smooth.  My adult life began with a romance that ended  badly.  I found myself not so unlike Dante in the opening of his Infernolost in a wood, “the right road was wholly lost and gone.”  Like many young evangelicals, I had known that I was supposed to be headed toward marriage.  I simply did not know why or how to get there.  It was only through the exploration and inquiry that the crisis precipitated that I slowly found out the “marriage” to which I had been headed was not much of a thing at all.

I have not lost that original interest in understanding the meaning of marriage or its peculiar goodness, even while our society has been beset by a sharp controversy over its legal and political dimensions. Over the past decade, the gay marriage controversy has intensified into a social conflict between two warring factions, who have taken their arguments everywhere from the Supreme Court to Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A.  The concurrent rise of social media has made the conflict feel even more totalizing, as it became harder to avoid seeing friends and neighbours locked in interminable discussions about it.

All this has had a considerable effect on younger evangelicals, even if the transformations may have been more subtle than the blunt instruments of “yes or no” polls might allow.  Many younger evangelicals with conservative theological positions no longer support the state’s recognition of traditional marriage.  The percentage who does is still disproportionately large, but even so the atmosphere has shifted.  Institutional bellweathers of young evangelical opinion like Relevant and Q have barely even addressed the subject the past five years. Many prominent young evangelical writers seem to have adopted the Louie Giglio model of never speaking of the subject at all, so as to not unnecessarily offend their audience base and embroil themselves in controversies that are not their “core issues.”  Others seem to have adopted a “strategic ambiguity” about the question, routinely chastening conservatives for approaching the subject badly without necessarily taking up the task of finding substantive remedies themselves.

The broader cultural shift is not only having its effect on young evangelicals’ political positions, though.  Many young evangelicals are losing confidence in traditionally Christian statements about sexual ethics, including those pertaining to homosexuality and masturbation.  Continue reading

Are You Free to NOT Drink?

I went to an evangelical Christian college that did not permit the consumption of alcohol. I grew up in a household and a conservative church culture–Midwest to boot–where drinking was out of the question and seen as bereft of goodness. I’m the child of an American evangelicalism that has had a decidedly contentious (to put it mildly) relationship with alcohol (see “Christians and Alcohol: A Timeline”).

But as I grew older, left home and left college, I came to see that drinking alcohol is a) not forbidden by Scripture (as opposed to drunkenness, which is) and b) actually quite wonderful. Like many of my peers who grew up in similar environments, I became rather fond of drinking fermented beverages in social settings, whether a Cabernet with dinner, IPA with friends or a single-malt scotch on special occasions.

beerOver time I noticed that it seemed increasingly popular amongst my fellow “twentysomething Christians” to embrace the fullest extent of liberty in the area of alcohol. I attended church small groups where beer and cocktails were regularly consumed; I went to parties where dozens of Christian college students and alumni were drinking from kegs and doing Sake bombs; I visited churches that met in bars; I went to Christian conferences where the “after parties” were raucous affairs at pubs; I met Christian beer critics, bartenders, pub owners.

I’m not saying any of this is inherently bad. In fact much of it is to be celebrated as harmless, good-old-fashioned “exhilaration,” as in the famous Martin Luther quip, “we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated.”

What worries me is this question: Are we so embracing our Christian liberty to partake of alcohol that it threatens to become less a “liberty” and more a shackling legalism–something we can’t, or won’t, go without? As my pastor Alan often says, are we as free to abstain from alcohol as we are free to enjoy it?

Other questions I think many of us would do well to ask ourselves:

  • Is alcohol a “nice to have” or a “must-have”? Can we go out to eat without ordering an alcoholic beverage? Attend a party and only drink soda? Dare to not have some booze in our house for a stretch of time?
  • Are we mindful of those around us, and if they struggle with alcohol in any way are we willing to abstain for their sake? Drinking alcohol may be a perfectly biblical, perfectly Christian thing to do. But if for others in our community it is a hardship or a temptation, then shouldn’t we abstain? As Christians, the ascetic call to deny ourselves perfectly good things for the sake of a community or a commitment is a worthy pursuit.
  • Do we wear our freedom as a badge of honor, as “proof” that we are under grace and thus can drink and party to our heart’s content? If so, we should check ourselves, because reducing grace to a sanctioning of pleasure is tragic; furthermore, if we are talking about freedom under grace, then what about the freedom to deny ourselves and go without? Grace makes this possible too.
  • Do we have a serious-enough understanding of how dangerous alcohol can be? Alcohol has a long and tumultuous history as an addictive wrecker of lives. We all know people who’ve been ruined or nearly ruined by it. We must be careful that our incremental habituation of it in our lives doesn’t become a controlling idol. Alcohol is not something to be trifled with.

Christians have the “right” to consume all sorts of things, though we are told not everything is beneficial or constructive (1 Cor. 10:23). Rather, we are instructed, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) and “do not cause anyone to stumble” (10:32).

This last part is key, something the Apostle Paul routinely emphasized (especially in Rom. and 1 Cor.). Because it is true that Christians have differing tolerances (“One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables,” Rom. 14:2), we should not pass judgment on or treat with contempt those with different liberties than us.

But we must also be real with ourselves. What’s the point of freedom if it doesn’t free us to enjoy, but also to abstain from, something in culture? And it goes beyond alcohol. There are all sorts of good items and activities in culture that we are free to enjoy in moderation. Food, fitness, movies, music, travel, sports, gaming, and on and on. But the minute any of this becomes something we can’t live without, or something we excessively consume to the point that we need it more than we enjoy it, we should be concerned.

Because ultimately, the goodness of something that we might consume is at its most good when we enjoy it in a God-centric way rather than a me-centric way. That is: when we see it as a gift from God and something to reflect glory back to him, rather than something that serves us and our needs.

Alcohol, like food or any number of things in God’s created world, is a good thing that can become a bad thing if we consume it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good insofar as we consume it not as something we must have but as something we can have, as a special delight of God’s glorious creation, which includes man’s creative (fermenting) genius. The freedom to drink should not be a freedom to drown one’s sorrows, prove a point or get a fix; it should be a freedom that fixes our eyes ever more on Christ, the giver of life who turns water into wine and makes all things new.

This is the third in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my new book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books). See also: part one and two.

Selfie Deception

What and how we consume says a lot about what we value. And what and how we consume has never been more public.

Thanks to the broadcasting devices in our pockets and the social network audiences always just a few finger taps away, our interactions vis-a-vis culture are increasingly the means by which people make assumptions about who we are and what we worship.

One of the premises of my new book, Gray Matters, is that in this consumerism-as-social-media-identity world, it is all the more imperative that Christians be intentional, thoughtful and critical in their consumer choices. People are watching. We are observed, processed, known through our consumptive habits. What message are we sending?

The new paradigm of digital/mediated/consumer “identity” is on disturbing display in Sofia Coppola’s new film, The Bling Ring, which depicts the true-life drama of a group of L.A. teens who robbed the Hollywood Hills mansions of celebrities in the late 2000s. The film’s opening is interspersed with snapshots of partying teens’ photos on Facebook and Instagram, and the plot turns on the way that social media makes one’s cultural consumption public, enviable, and (in this case) vulnerable to property theft. But what is most striking is the sheer proliferation of “selfies”: characters holding out their arms with phone cameras to document (and immediately publish to the world) all manner of pursed-lip posing, stolen cash flaunting, booze-imbing and other such glamorization of vice.

There’s an unsettling ambience of directionless vacuity in these youngsters’ lives. Where is their sense of purpose (moral or otherwise)? All that seems to animate their reckless behavior is the possibility that it will play well on social media or get picked up by TMZ.

Bling’s teen bandits are obsessed, first and foremost, with celebrity. But it’s not that they are fans of the films or television shows which made people celebrities in the first place. Nor is it that they are particularly interested in the celebrities as people, with unique personalities and stories. Rather, what interests these Millennials most about celebrities is simply the celebrity-ness of them: their paparazzi aura, nightclub exploits, tabloid scandals and–above all–haute fashion. In short: their conspicuous consumption. As Richard Brody observes in his New Yorker review of the film,

Nobody here cares very much about movies or television shows. Nobody talks about stories, and certainly nobody is reading anything other than magazines. They know the actors whom series and movies have turned into celebrities but have little interest in the shows themselves.

This sort of fetishizing of celebrity at its most superficial (the Louboutin heels, Rolex watches, Birkin bags and Herve Leger dresses they wear), isolated from any broader narrative of who they are and why they are famous, helps explains the existence of famous-for-being-rich people like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. But it also reveals a larger cultural problem, which Brody pinpoints as “narrative deprivation.”

Today’s youth, reared in the Google age of on-demand, isolated bits of information and the real-time feeds of a million little “snapshots” (tweets, Vines, rabble-rousing blog posts, etc.), have no patience for narratives that give context or make connections. It doesn’t matter who Kim Kardashian is or how she became famous. What matters is that she gets to wear Lanvin dresses while on red carpets with Kanye West, while paparazzi take note of the slightest details of her Judith Leiber clutch. And these kids want that too. Brody continues:

In their selfies and their videos, the teens broadcast themselves living out crude fantasies of what, as one of them says, “everyone” aspires to be. What isn’t shared is the way they actually live: the teens don’t depict themselves breaking into houses and cars, stealing, selling stolen goods, or driving drunk. They don’t talk about their own lives in terms of stories. Rather, they live in a world that detaches effect from cause, and they depict only the outcomes.

Hence the sheer ubiquity of selfies. For them, earning jail time for thievery is a small price to pay for the opportunity to broadcast images of themselves wearing Prada sunglasses and guzzling Cristal at Lindsay Lohan’s favorite nightclub. It doesn’t matter what they had to do to get there (steal) or what will happen later (jail). The “now” of social media glory–however fleeting it may be–is what matters.

This “narrative deprivation” is symptomatic of (or perhaps another name for) “narrative collapse,” a phenomenon discussed at length in Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock. Rushkoff suggests that today’s world is defined by presentist, fragmented media consumption and an “entropic, static hum of everybody trying to capture the slipping moment.”

Narrativity and goals are surrendered to a skewed notion of the real and the immediate; the Tweet; the status update. What we are doing at any given moment becomes all-important–which is behavioristically doomed. For this desperate approach to time is at once flawed and narcissistic. Which “now” is important: the now I just lived or the now I’m in right now?

Social media’s “what are you doing now?” invitation to pose, pontificate and consume conspicuously only amplifies the narcissistic presentism of the generation depicted in The Bling Ring. It makes it easier than ever to tell the world exactly what you want them to know about you. Through a carefully cropped and color-corrected selfie, depicting whatever glamorized “now” we think paints us in the best light, we can construct a public persona as we see fit.

But it’s a double deception. The projections of our self that we put on social media blast are more often than not deceptive in the way they skew, ignore or amplify realities that constitute our true identity. But it’s also a self-deception. That social media conflates our identity with what we consume leads us to the erroneous conclusion that “who I am” can be easily summed up in the ingredient-listing “profiles” of the bands, brands, books and causes we “like,” the restaurants at which we “check-in,” or the songs we let everyone know we are currently enjoying.

Social media exacerbates our ever-growing tendency to approach cultural consumption as more of a public, performative act than an enjoyable, enriching experience. It becomes less about the thing we consume and more about how our consuming of it fits our preferred image. Bling’s high school burglars steal thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, clothes, and shoes not because they find those things inherently interesting, beautiful or pleasurable; but because they hope the accoutrements of celebrity will rub off on them. The things themselves are merely a means to an end.

For anyone who loves culture and recognizes the inherent beauty and value in, say, an expertly crafted table or an exceptionally roasted coffee bean, it is regrettable to see such things reduced to status symbol or fodder for social media selfie-deception. Making cultural items mere props in our social media performance is just another way of “using” culture to meet our needs rather than “receiving” it and letting it “work on us,” to borrow from C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism.

For Christians, resisting the temptation to use culture rather than value it for its inherent goodness is a worthy endeavor, but it’s not enough. Using culture for self-worship is bad, but worshipping culture for its own sake is too. The “goodness” of culture, while certainly a thing to be celebrated, comes not from what it can do for us or even what it is in itself, but rather what it reflects about God and how it points humanity toward Him.

Every piece of culture we consume is an opportunity to glorify and give thanks to the Creator. We of all people should not cheapen culture by reducing it to something that mostly serves our narcissism. We of all people should not strip a cultural thing of its God-given goodness by focusing on its potential to aid in our strategic social media identity construction.

For Christians, culture should never be a tool in service of selfie-deception or self-worship. Rather, it should be something that brings us to posture of gratitude and confronts us with who we really are, laying our deceptions bare and focusing us away from ourselves. And if our consumption of culture communicates anything to the world, it should be a testimony not to our own greatness, style, or Valencia-filtered taste, but to the grandeur and glory of God.

This is the second in a series of posts on contemporary Christianity’s relationship to culture, based on ideas from my soon-to-be released book, Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books).

Don’t Try the Same Marriage Debate Again

If at first you don’t succeed, you should change your approach. Despite how the Supreme Court rules on Windsor, marriage advocates have been losing cultural headway, particularly among “Millennials,” since 2004. While a legal fight defending religious freedom and liberty of conscience in a post Windsor world is necessary, marriage advocates need to do more than fight rearguard actions. The question is how?

Marriage advocacy must advance in a way that influences culture directly. Influencing culture is more than a matter of rational argument and policy discussion. Better arguments from natural law, while essential and helpful, are unlikely to turn the tide of opinion because people are not convinced rationally in the first place (despite what marriage revisionists may suggest with a “bring it on” posture, begging conservatives to give them “one rational” argument to defend what they believe). Television, songs, friends, and personal experience shape what people believe about love and marriage far more than intellectual argumentation. In short, unconscious influences shape culture in the form of social and personal narratives and emotion. Defending marriage in the long-run is less about winning a debate than changing people’s aspirations.

Same Sex Marriage

Marriage revisionists understand this all too well, and are reaping the benefits of having spent years building up emotional and rhetorical advantages on the issue.

Yet some conservatives seem to operate with rationalist expectations for how people process emotionally charged issues like redefining marriage. The problem is not: “How can we marshal more facts, tighter logic, and make more sense than the other side?” The common sense definition of marriage as a heterosexual union that Christians and other marriage advocates relied on just a generation ago has been transformed. The problem is: “How do we transform common sense?”

The John Jay Institute published You’ve Been Framed: A New Primer for the Marriage Debate last week. The document applies research from cognitive science and narrative theory to equip marriage advocates with the frameworks and tools to transform common sense and counter the messages of marriage revisionists. Transforming common sense requires understanding emotion to invoke narratives and tell stories with new metaphors and memes that take root in people’s minds, slowly changing what inspires them, changing what they aspire to, and transforming what they value.

Moral judgment is more than a dispassionate assessment of rights, harms, and justice. Continue reading