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.

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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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Beyond the Pink Police State: Community Health Workers

James Poulos’ recent exploration of what he dubs the Pink Police State lays out an argument that is clear, even if not immediately accessible: our obsession with health coincides with a desire for impulsivity that has not only led to social permissiveness regarding sexual behavior, but state involvement to ensure that all behavior, even that which is considered transgressive, is appropriately hygienic. Those who prefer the sacrifice of political freedom for interpersonal hedonism are all too happy to lean on whatever political categories– libertarian, progressive, or indifferent– are in vogue at any moment, so long as our existential restlessness leads us to either sexual satisfaction or continually cruising for the next round of jollies. Similarly, our economic restlessness should leave us either satisfied with buying things or continually cruising for the Marxist revolution. His solution to this not-quite-Brave New World era is human conversation and an assent to human malleability to overcome the comfortable patterns of thought that enslave us in the Pink Police State.

Poulos’ diagnosis, which pins the statist delineation of safe and unsafe sex on “elitist technocrats and erotic populists,” is close enough to the truth to throw us off the chase. There is indeed reason to fear the erotic populists, as I’ve already elucidated how sexual libertinism is class warfare, a point that Ross Douthat has extended to the technocrats. However, even once we have understood the siege tactics of our new regime, we must not only discern its architects more carefully, but we must also embrace more specific policies to facilitate the sort of face-to-face conversations that are necessary.

The main weakness in Poulos’ piece– the moment I was practically salivating for, especially when he deploys the metaphor of a tender pink steak– is that sex is the centerpiece of his conception of the Pink Police State instead of food. While the tempests of sexual politics are often the most pitched in American discourse, the food and drink we consume is of far more interest to our hygienic overlords. Most people end up caught in the natural endgame that ensues when sex is free enough to be used to sell anything and transgression is revealed as masturbatory: either they are consumed in an endless cycle of identity politics or they gently drift into something resembling monogamy. Sex is the sideshow in the Pink Police State, but food and drugs–which are responsible for far more deaths and subject to far more regulations–are in the center ring.

The arch-villains in the Pink Police State are those who profit off disease. When we raise our fists against statist manipulation of what goes into our orifices, we forget that these powers have been accorded to the state in part because industrial capitalism gave individuals, companies, and institutions power to destroy lives and communities. While there are certainly plenty of sex-peddlers who chew up and spit out the vulnerable, the profits extracted in the course of damaging the land and our bodies are far more formidable–as are the dangers posed to our health. When an enormous acreage of good soil can be abused to grow a vast monoculture of corn that is then turned into a large quantity of sugar that is subsequently exported across the world in carbonated beverages to drive up amputations due to diabetes, the djinn is literally out of the bottle.

The Pink Police State wishes to stem this tide through a variety of means, for better or for worse. I am happy to say that I have met some technocrats in my day (I do not know how “elite” any of them have been.) A great number have cared for such amputees and other people who have suffered harm from what we call “lifestyle” diseases. They are almost entirely moved by compassion and while they are paid (often by the state through one means or another) to treat or prevent disease, most would be happy to be out of a job if it meant that fewer people became disabled or dead at younger ages. While libertarians and conservatives frequently bristle at attempts to control the sale of certain substances (or, even worse, to make other substances safer to inject), it is crucial to recognize that the habits of behavior and thought that Poulos elucidates in Part 4 of his series can be shaped in ways that prolong lives. Regardless of whether or not one thinks that any restriction on tobacco whatsoever is worthwhile, it is useful to recognize that the effort made to reduce its use in America has resulted in a reduction in death and disability.

However, public health and population health are not merely measures of extending lives or preventing amputations. These things are measurable, which makes them useful to the technocrats, but health is far more than the absence of disease. Health is wholeness, as Wendell Berry has observed, and it is at this point that my sympathies with the Pink Police State part ways. A measurable decrease in amputations is hardly a victory if the preserved feet are still pointed at the droning television for the rest of the days that they are attached. Understanding the natural order of creation leads us to understand that our bodies are better suited for vegetables than soda; it takes only slightly more effort to realize that face-to-face conversations are just as much a part of our reflection of this order. Words like “holistic” are often thrown around casually to describe this philosophy, but we must appreciate the weight of holism that requires change in every aspect of our lifestyles from what is sold to how we have our conversations before this language can be useful.

Yet the powers that profit from disease and the state that wishes to magnify itself to save the day both seem to have little interest in holism; minimizing the power of one will only give the other more latitude to damage both creation and creativity. How then can conversation– beyond eloquent appeals on blogs– be fostered?

A better policy is needed, one that distributes the power of the state downward to facilitate conversations–perhaps, frankly, to subsidize them. This solution may be inherently unappealing to advocates of political freedom, who may see such subsidization as the most dastardly move of the Pink Police State yet. However, short of a sudden, spontaneous embrace of beloved community (which we can always hope, pray, and work for), we will have to use the apparatus of the state against itself and rebuild the power in neighborhoods and small towns.

What is this policy that might make more face-to-face conversations happen, improve the measurable health outcomes of our population, promote healing in wholeness, and perhaps even destroy the Pink Police State with its own money? James Poulos said that the future belongs to community organizers. I would suggest that the ideal kind of community organizer for this task of battling the twin powers of corporatist high fructose corn syrup and statist hygiene is a community health worker.

The concept is fairly straightforward, if perhaps unfamiliar. Like bidets and decent mass transit, community health workers have only shown up in America when decided effort against the status quo met an appropriate funding source. We probably have doctors to blame for not implementing the use of community health workers (CHWs from here on); the number of things that a good corps of CHWs could do would either directly compete with a physician’s business or prevent enough complications to put a dent in any hospital’s income. While no grand proposal at any state or federal level has (to my knowledge) ever emerged, the concept of publicly funded CHWs equipped to practice the right kind of medicine opposes the American health industry so obnoxiously that any number of existing powers would feel quite skittish about their existence (the exception to this may be hospitals in my own home state, which have been told by Medicare that they are receiving a predetermined sum for services this year and it is up to them to figure out how to spend less than that sum.)

What do CHWs do? Well, it depends on where they are and who is paying them, but in general they are responsible for ensuring that every member of their community gets the services that benefit everyone (e.g. vaccines and primary screening), and they keep an eye on members of the community who already have a chronic disease and need help managing it so that complications do not develop. More importantly, they are the facilitators for any community decisions regarding health and the link between any one cluster of people and the state funds for infrastructure necessary to keep people from dying young. They can be very specialized– for example, focusing specifically on HIV-positive patients– or more general, covering a broad range of needs for a community.

I like face-to-face conversations with my patients. It’s one of the best parts of my job. Quite frankly, though, for the healthy–or the almost-healthy, those who have one or maybe two chronic diseases–my seven years of medical training is overkill for ordering their shots and their mammograms. Those seven years might be useful if someone is trying to ascertain exactly what benefit they may gain and what risks they may run by submitting to my suggestions, but rarely are they necessary (also, rarely are doctors good at this.) Someone with a high school education and perhaps a 1- or 2-year certificate could probably do the majority of what I do for a much cheaper price, and with the right tools at their disposal, they could probably do it more efficiently than I could. Furthermore, if a CHW or team of CHWs were assigned to particular areas, then the face-to-face conversations that they have all day long about what their patients are eating and how their patients are feeling could have a great deal less rush to them than a similar set of conversations than with a primary care physician (who can usually only give you 15 minutes of your time unless you’re dying or paying extra.)

CHWs must be based in the community and (whenever possible) from the community that they serve, for it is in the intangible relationships and the tangible presence that they draw their power to communicate and distribute their knowledge that they have acquired outside their locale. These ties are also what gives them the power to organize their community against the forces outside that would take their money in exchange for a higher risk of diabetes or would take their political freedom to protect them from their own decisions. The best CHWs do not change health behaviors through coercion (as does the Pink Police State) nor through seduction (as does the transgressive factory farm), but through collaboration. They have been an instrumental part of empowering communities all over the world and fit naturally into the institutions like chuches and neighborhood associations that help to sustain civil society. When people have embraced healthy behavior for themselves, the only thing that they will need from the state is protection from forces beyond their control (like pollution) and provision of medicines beyond their means (like antiretrovirals.)

The Pink Police State is truly a menace to the natural order, but before we beat it we’ll have to join it. If we can extract the goodwill of the elite technocrats to put money and power in the hands of people tied to local communities, the erotic (or gluttonous) populists will finally have a real set of countermeasures opposing them–members of a place who have learned discipline through conversations individual and corporate. In a world where our power of over nature has must be carefully stewarded, the care of our bodies is inseparable from policy. Our bodies, individual and corporate, can only be built up– and the Pink Police State can only be torn down–by the wisest policies.

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

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.

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).

One More on Chick-Fil-A, with John Corvino

I’ve had company in town and have been frantically putting together last-second arrangements for our trip across the ocean, so things have been a little quiet for me.  But this week John Corvino and I decided to tag-team the Chick-Fil-A issue and to say something sensible about the whole thing.

If you don’t know John’s name, well, you should.  He’s one of the most careful gay apologists I know and is someone who has become a friend.  We’ve dialogued about some of these issues publicly before and we’d like to keep that up (which means if you have a budget, we will travel!).

I’ve a forthcoming review of his co-authored book with Maggie Gallagher on same-sex marriage, which is as good a place as any to wade into the debate as I’ve seen.  But in the meantime, here’s our latest serving of commentary on the Chick-Fil-A brouhaha.

Sometimes a chicken sandwich is just a chicken sandwich. Except, it seems, when it’s from Chick-Fil-A, and you find yourself in the midst of a culture war. In fact, the two of us are passionate participants in that war: Matthew is the lead writer at MereOrthodoxy.com and a socially conservative evangelical Christian; John is a gay man, a religious skeptic, and a well known marriage-equality advocate.

We differ on the definition of marriage, the existence of God, and other important stuff. Yet we’re also friends, not in the happy-pappy “can’t we all just get along” sense, or worse, in the self-congratulatory “look at how tolerant I am” sense, but in a more challenging and thus more meaningful way. We actually listen to each other, even when it’s hard.

Which is how we discovered last week some common ground in the whole Chick-Fil-A brouhaha. Some of it is easy: We agree that Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy has the right to opine as he wishes on controversial topics, however unwise a business decision that may be; that religious conservatives have a right to express their solidarity by eating fried chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, however unwise a dietary decision that may be; and that gays and their allies have a right to boycott the restaurant and to protest peacefully, however ineffectual such boycotts may be. For comparison, consider the National Organization for Marriage’s “Dump Starbucks” campaign. (Starbucks supports marriage for same-sex couples.)

 Matt

Friendship, Opposition, and Chick-Fil-A

I’ve had just about enough Chick-Fil-A over the past week to last more than a lifetime, and I didn’t even visit the restaurant today (more on that in a minute).

Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been reading and digesting, trying to nail down precisely what I think our response to all this should have been.  And not doing a particularly good job of that, frankly.  My thoughts have been muddled, more so than on an average day, as I’ve tried to sort through the cultural logic beneath both the protests and the counterprotests and what my own obligations and duties are in light of it and my desire to be faithful to the word of God.

See, I understand that people don’t like Dan Cathy’s remarks or the fact that Chick-Fil-A gives money to defending traditional marriage.   And I understand that makes them not want to buy Chick-Fil-A and to make a big fuss over it.  I get it, just like I get how people who are conservatives want to do that with Starbucks.

And I understand how silly politicians needed a reminder that, you know, people are still okay eating food at restaurants that support traditional marriage.  The naked hostility toward Chick-Fil-A by city leaders should be worrying to us all.  And those Christians who objected to supporting Chick-Fil-A might wish to consider what they will do to support religious liberties to make up the difference.  A letter to the editor might do, or perhaps some agitation against the HHS mandate (which was ironically implemented yesterday).  Continue reading

Sexual Politics and our Soft Despotism

Ross Douthat followed up his weekly column that hit on Chick-Fil-A with a few more thoughts that are worth reading:

The cause of gay marriage has indeed advanced because many millions of people have been persuaded of its merits: No cause could move so swiftly from the margins to the mainstream if it didn’t have appealing arguments supporting it and powerful winds at its back. But it has also advanced, and will probably continue to advance, through social pressureideological enforcement, and legal restriction. Indeed, the very language of the movement is explicitly designed to exert this kind of pressure: By redefining yesterday’s consensus view of marriage as “bigotry,” and expanding the term “homophobia” to cover support for that older consensus as well as personal discomfort with/animus toward gays, the gay marriage movement isn’t just arguing with its opponents; it’s pathologizing them, raising the personal and professional costs of being associated with traditional views on marriage, and creating the space for exactly the kind of legal sanctions that figures like Thomas Menino and Rahm Emanuel spent last week flirting with.

This entire affair has brought me back to a notion James Poulos described a few years back, the “pink police state.”  As he put it then:

What gives me fear is the idea, which large numbers of people seem to be buying into, that a growing sphere of libertinistic freedoms compensates (or more than compensates!) for our shrinking spheres of political liberty and the practice of citizenship….So citizens of a Pink Police State (I should say subjects) are apt to surrender more and more political liberty in exchange for more and more cultural or ‘personal’ license. And the government of a Pink Police State tends to monopolize and totalize administrative control while carving out a permissive playpen for the people.

Judging by recent events surrounding our sexual politics, that “permissive playpen” apparently can only be built if traditional sexual teachings are kept cordoned off on the side.  We may not, as James mused in a longer exposition of the theme, yet have a government that owns our homes and is installing stripper poles for us.  But we do have one that is willing to mandate contraception coverage even by religious employers.  And some of the leaders of our largest cities have taken it upon themselves to make businesses that signal they aren’t quite on board with the playpen’s rules play somewhere else.

It’s tempting, I realize, to dismiss framing all this as unduly restrictive to Christians because of the real martyrdoms that are happening around the world.  And I understand and sympathize with the critique.  But the rightness or wrongness of a state of affairs isn’t determined comparatively, and to say that the calls by mayors and city councilmen to use the force of law to restrict Chick-Fil-A’s sphere of operations is wrong is not to say it’s the most grave wrong.  Soft despotism may be soft, but it is still despotic.

 

Candor, the Religious Liberty Fight, and Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat:

Like a belief that the gods want human sacrifice, [Western monotheism's ideas about human sexuality] are permissible if held in private. But they cannot be exercised in ways that might deny, say, employer-provided sterilizations to people who really don’t want kids. Nor can they be exercised to deny one’s offspring the kind of sexual gratification that anti-circumcision advocates claim the procedure makes impossible. They certainly cannot be exercised in ways that might make anyone uncomfortable with his or her own sexual choices or identity.

It may seem strange that anyone could look around the pornography-saturated, fertility-challenged, family-breakdown-plagued West and see a society menaced by a repressive puritanism. But it’s clear that this perspective is widely and sincerely held.

It would be refreshing, though, if it were expressed honestly, without the “of course we respect religious freedom” facade.

If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.

There, didn’t that feel better? Now we can get on with the fight.

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, that sort of candor would be nice but it’s almost certainly not going to happen.  Transparency on that level is inimical to the aims of those who want to subvert religious freedom on the altar of the reigning sexual morality.  In a liberal democracy of the sort we have, the sort of stark statement that there is a “fight” afoot invites chastisements from those who want a more tolerant discourse, a less divisive polity.  And if religious liberties for conservatives are genuinely at stake, well, it’s best for those who oppose them to masque their intentions until the freedoms have been irreversibly eroded.  Obfuscation and vagueness, in this case, are on the side of freedom’s decay.

But I think the more likely reality is that those in our American context who, for instance, support the HHS decision to mandate contraception don’t have the sort of conscious awareness of the threat their position poses to religious liberties at all.  I keep running into the notion that, “Hey, this is America.  Religious freedom is what we do!”  There’s no good reason for it, other than the lore and legacy that makes up the affirmation that America is unique (though point out that this is a sort of American exceptionalism and, well, it doesn’t generally go well).  But I suspect that more often than not people simply struggle to imagine the genuine difficulties these positions pose for religious believers.  Call it the soft despotism of a failed moral imagination, or something along those lines.One final point:  if I’m right and unclarity is actually a tool against conservatives, then asking for candor risks  sounding like scare-mongering.  After all, it would be easy to retort that Douthat is conjuring up something that simply isn’t there.  And we all know how well sounding the alarm tends to go.  But that is, it seems to me, simply the dilemma that conservatives face on all of these issues.  And if anyone has a way through that’s better than Douthat’s, I am an eager and attentive listener.

The New Puritanism: Chick-fil-A and Boycotts

I had planned to avoid the Chick-Fil-A brouhaha for the reason Sarah Pulliam Bailey lists here:  seriously, people, this is news?  In case you’ve missed it, Chick-Fil-A is closed on Sundays.  They’re not exactly the most liberal group and have been that way since the beginning. 

But now Chicago is doubling down on Boston’s wariness about letting in new restaurants, all because Dan Cathy said–well, what exactly did he say again?  Apparently not what the media reported.  But then no one needs details when the fury’s afoot.

Chick-Fil-A

This, of course, is not the first boycott we’ve seen this year.  Starbucks was dumped by a goodly number of people for moving gay rights to the center of their brand.  We talked about the ethics of boycotting around that time, and the conversation will doubtlessly come up again.

But not today.  No, today I want to explore a different angle:  the rise of the new Puritanism, the legalistic restriction of our choices and options based on the erosion of services as services because they’re now statements.

My friend Jonathan Merritt raised a reasonable question amidst the rest of the furor:

I’m flummoxed that so many consumers are so quick these days to call for boycotts of any company that deviates from their personal or political views. For one thing, boycotts rarely cause actual pocketbook – rather than PR — damage. Most consumers don’t care enough to drive an extra mile to get the same product from someone else. And that’s especially the case for companies as large as Chick-fil-A, which has prime locations on many college campuses where there is little head-to-head competition.

But my bigger question is this: In a nation that’s as divided as ours is, do we really want our commercial lives and our political lives to be so wholly intermeshed? And is this really the kind of culture we want to create? Culture war boycotts cut both ways and are much more likely to meet with success when prosecuted by large groups of people, such as Christian activists, who are more numerous than gays and lesbians and their more activist supporters.

Let’s work through this slowly, but not with much detail.  We’ll fill that in later, if the big picture proves worth it.

It seems to me that we’re going to see more of these sorts of boycotts going forward, and that the cultural pressure creating them has been at work for a while.  Two interwoven threads, specifically, seem to be significant:

First, if you buy (while appreciating the irony) the story of consumerism, then purchases aren’t simply the sorts of things that fill a need but are rather ways in which we express our “identity,” our most deeply held values.  They are, to use an Augustinian turn, expressions of our loves and those loves make us who we are.  TOMS Shoes is trying to do good and that’s part of the appeal.  But it’s also got cultural cache that comes with the brand.  You’re not just wearing shoes, after all, as much as joining a movement.  Nike had “Just do it” and all the hipsters decried advertising, but TOMS offers “One for One” and now we smile and nod.  It’s the same sort of identity expression, except with a more socially minded gloss.

And there is the corollary development in all this:  the self-conscious turn by the corporation from maker of products to expresser of values.  Think through the two major boycotts this year, Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A:  which of those had to do with the products the company produced?

It be folly to think that companies have ever escaped having values.  Yet those values seem to have been, well, tied to their products.  Industry.  Thrift.  Quality construction.  Chick-Fil-A’s decision to close on Sunday’s is a decent example of this:  I suspect it doesn’t actually hurt their bottom line nearly as much as people think because everyone is happier and more productive the other six days.  It makes a better product through creating a better workplace.  But what, pray tell, has Starbucks’ support of gay marriage to do with their internal “culture” or bottom line?

You can judge the transition, I think, by contrasting these boycotts with those from years past.  The Religious Right took on Disney and K-Mart, most famously, but for slightly different reasons than people are protesting Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A.  In Disney’s case, well, they were making content that the Southern Baptists didn’t much like and were hosting parties at Disneyland that the Baptists wouldn’t attend.  K-Mart owned Waldenbooks, and they sold porn.  In both cases, it wasn’t simply the internal “culture” or a commitment to tolerance:  there were products that were coming out of those values, products that a constituency saw fit to reject.  We don’t have to agree with those decisions to note that something has shifted.

The effect of all this, I think, is a new form of Puritanism that is slowly throttling our society.  The irony of the intolerant tolerant has often been noted.  But the problem goes far deeper than that:  it’s that as the expressions of our identity continue to expand, intolerance will continue to take a more visible form.  That mocha-frappacino is no longer just a drink  and your chicken sandwich now signals your values.  And once that game starts, then everything’s in play.  The end result will be that moral judgment will happen easier and faster than ever, and always without the benefit of a hearing.

There’s more to be said on all this, no doubt, including exploring more closely the reasons why politics and consumption are increasingly intertwined.  But if I am anywhere in the neighborhood of “right,” then it means that these sorts of boycotts will hardly be the last of their kind.

Update:  Two accessible and worthy books on the consumerism problem, written by two friends of mine.  Skye Jethani’s The Divine Commodity is a great treatment, and though it has a very different style Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s Brand Jesus is fantastic as well.