Twitter Is Like Elizabeth Bennet’s Meryton

I’m quite pleased to feature this piece from Mere Fidelity contributor Alastair Roberts today. You can follow him on Twitter here or read his personal blog here

‘A Truth Universally Acknowledged…’

In a 1997 article on communal judgment in Pride and Prejudice, William Deresiewicz observed that Pride and Prejudice is, at first glance, an apparent exception to Austen’s practice of opening her novels by introducing a central character.(1) Indeed, Elizabeth Bennet’s character doesn’t truly come to the foreground until around the sixth chapter. Closer examination, however, reveals that there is a central character introduced at the beginning of the novel: the community, with its values, expectations, conventions, and practices. The opening sentence of the book—‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’—is a ‘mock aphorism’, which is swiftly exposed to be nothing but a judgment that is ‘well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families’ of the neighbourhood. The earlier episodes of the story focus upon the neighbourhood of Meryton and its collective consciousness, which emerges as Mr Bingley and his friends move to Netherfield and become known to the community of the local gentry, most particularly in the opening ball. Deresiewicz remarks: ‘Elizabeth cannot appear until well into this initial story because it is that story—the story of how a community thinks, talks, exerts influence—that produces her plot, that produces her’ (504). Continue reading

Fear the Lifestyle that will Kill Body and Soul

I got a lot of responses to my recent Christianity Today article on vaccines, but one of the more arresting ones was from a mother who asked me what I would say to the parents of a child who had clearly been injured or killed by a vaccine. Would I just slap that mother or father on the back and say, “thanks for taking one for the team!” with a solemn nod?

In preparing to go to South Sudan as a medical missionary, I’ve had to spend a lot of time thinking about what would happen if something happened to myself or my children while we’re on the field. My future team leader nearly lost his daughter to a mysterious tropical illness and lost his sight in one eye in the same week. There are real risks that our families face when we travel to a remote place for the sake of the Gospel, though many of these risks are unavoidable to any parent and they’re simply magnified in a malarial war zone. We all want to keep our children safe from physical dangers and most parents (even non-Christians) recognize that there are equal or greater spiritual and moral dangers present in every cultural milieu. Stepping out in faith often requires more direct confrontation with such dangers. How do we think about preparing for such dangers as a community of faith? Continue reading

The Distortions of Progressive Christians: How Religious Liberty is in Danger

You are asking me to walk in the way of a well-known betrayer, one who sold something of infinite worth for 30 pieces of silver. That is something I will not do.” So said Baronelle Stutzman, a seventy-year old florist who has been sued by the State of Washington and by Rob Ingersoll in both her personal capacity and in her business for declining to provide flowers for Ingersoll’s wedding, a decision she reached after prayer and careful consideration. Ingersoll is gay. But he had also been a customer for some nine years, during which Stutzman had formed a close relationship with him, so that she asked him for details about his wedding and they left on good terms. She has employed individuals who identify as gay. Her case has been petitioned to the Washington State Supreme Court.

Baronelle Stutzman is a florist. And a dissenter.

Baronelle Stutzman is a florist. And a dissenter.

Kelvin Cochran was removed as Atlanta’s fire chief after self-publishing a book on male sexuality and handing it out to members of his longstanding bible study. The city of Atlanta had no such policy against such a practice, and after investigating Cochran could find no evidence of him discriminating against gay or lesbian individuals.* Blaine Adamson of Hands on Originals refused to print shirts for the Lexington Pride Festival which featured a rainbow flag on them, precisely because he did not want to participate in an expressive activity that he held deep moral objections to. He was compelled to defend himself against a complaint to the local “Human Rights Commission.” He won his case; it is currently not clear whether it will be appealed. He was defended by a lesbian print shop from New Jersey. Continue reading

Anthony Kennedy was *Almost* Right: Post-Obergefell Thoughts on Where We Go Now

Anthony Kennedy was almost right. While his inventive reading of the Constitution in Obergefell vs. Hodges has been widely and panned by both liberals and conservatives, his transcendentalizing of marriage is precisely the kind of understanding to which defenders of traditional marriage can and should offer a hearty and enthusiastic ‘yes.’ When it comes to constitutional reasoning, Obergefell is a disaster. But when it comes to our nation’s culture of marriage, Obergefell provides traditional Christians the best opportunity we have had in fifty years to make a more persuasive case for why marriage still matters.

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“Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”  As Wesley Hill and others pointed out immediately after the ruling came down, such rhetoric makes it seem like those who opt not to marry are somehow missing out on a form of life that is essential to satisfy their needs and deepest desires. Such language doesn’t quite create a ‘dignitary wound’ toward those who are unmarried, since they are not in the precise sense denied marriage. But it certainly extends our current atmosphere where marriage is the only form of deep personal fulfillment we can imagine. Continue reading

The Inevitability of Same-Sex Marriage

There can be no meaning apart from roots. –Walter Brueggemann

For astute cultural observers, nothing about the recent SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage should be surprising. Though there was widespread popular opposition to redefining marriage as recently as 10 years ago and though 30 states voted on and passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, there was still an inevitability to what happened in 2014. This was no triumph of big government or judicial activism going against the popular opinion of the people. As the Onion noted, the question wasn’t whether marriage would be redefined in the USA, but merely when.

In the aftermath of this decision conservatives should focus less on the question of same-sex marriage itself and more around the issue of how something considered a categorical impossibility for much of human history has come to seem not only possible, but an essential part of a just society for most of our peers. Continue reading

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

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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.

Continue reading