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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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.

When Your Social Media Feeds Get You Down

You know those days when your Facebook and Twitter feeds are just so painfully, overwhelmingly negative? When every other post is a political rant, declarative missive about one’s consumer habits (“farewell, Chick Fil A”!), or esoteric theological brawl about terms (say, “complementarian” and “egalitarian”) that mean nothing to your non-Christian friends? Those days when every passing tweet sparks an idea or response in your mind, but you are just too exhausted and mentally drained to bother engaging? Those days that leave you embarrassed to be part of evangelicalism and tempted to just move to some corner of the globe where the only Christianity that exists is new and vibrant, rising from the ashes of a collapsed Christendom?

I know those days, and I bet many of you do too.

On those days, when the reports of Christianity’s slow death in America are clearly evidenced by the number of Christians screaming at each other instead of worshiping God together or proclaiming the gospel, sometimes I despair. But then I remind myself of an important fact: God and his purposes will carry on in spite of it all. In spite of me. In spite of you. In spite of our insufferable tendencies to poach Scripture to justify our own positions. In spite of the Westboro Baptist type crazies, the gay-embracing Episcopalians, the Reformed blog warriors, the angry Texas megachurch pastors, the “I need to pick a blog fight at least once a week” rabble-rousers, and every last sorry one of us. This whole thing is–thanks be to God–so much bigger than any one, two, or million of us.

social-media-negativeI remind myself of the truism which my pride so often obscures: that the Christian life is not, after all, about me, and that my purpose on earth is not about maximizing my own happiness. Rather, it’s about joining in God’s mission, submitting my will to His, seeking first His kingdom. It’s about giving up my grip on my life, losing it to save it (Luke 17:33). It’s about remembering the call to deny myself (Matt 16:24), to be humble (Phil. 2-3-4, Romans 12:3), sacrificial (Romans 12:1, John 15:13), and always, out of love, putting the interests of others before our own.

At the core of it, I think, is the idea that to truly follow Christ is to be willing to subordinate one’s pride and will to the Other; to give up what we think we’re entitled to and subject ourselves to something transcendent and true–something that may not fit comfortably with what we think or desire or feel to be right. It’s to admit the feebleness of the “if it feels good, do it” philosophy, instead recognizing that we’re alive on earth for far bigger things than just “feeling good.” It’s to accept the fact that–because we are fallen and our desires are disordered–our Self is not a trustworthy guide (apart from an encounter with the gospel and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit) in the pursuit of the righteousness and flourishing for which we were designed.

Such an idea is revolutionary and absurd in our society today, of course, where the prevailing sentiment is “do what makes you happy” and the highest virtue is the assertion of  each person’s absolute sovereignty over their identity and their own curated vision of the good life.

“Baby you were born this way” shouts Lady Gaga to anyone wrestling with non-normative gender or sexual identities. “Baby you should speak what’s on your mind, because your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s!” shouts the Internet to every would-be blogger or social media sharer. “Baby you are owed all sorts of things from the government, which exists to hold your hand every step of the way, because you deserve it!” shout the governments of countless nations in the world in the unfortunate position of having more and more entitled citizens and less and less means to support their dependencies.

In such a society, no wonder we’re all at each other’s throats. No wonder the discourse is so heated and (mostly) infantile. It’s a natural byproduct of the fetishizing of individualism and entitlement. Everyone wants to hear themselves opine. Everyone’s simply asserting their own rightness and right to be affirmed in whatever feels to them to be good and true and just, even if goodness and truth and justice aren’t really things they’ve honestly explored much. Naturally, arguments in such a society don’t often go anywhere productive.

It’s disheartening when I see Christians falling into these patterns just like everyone else. We of all people should recognize the folly of a “what’s right in his own eyes” approach to living. We of all people should recognize the existence of transcendent truths and ultimate authorities (namely: God’s self-revelation via Scripture) to which we must defer. We of all people should know that we’re entitled to absolutely nothing and that God is to be worshipped whether we have or have not.

Mostly, I lament that so many Christians seem to be missing the reality that life is much more fulfilling and liberating when it’s not just about me. This is not to say humanity is incapable of magnificent wonders which bring glory to God, gifts which should be cultivated and celebrated. Nor it is to say that spirited discussion and debate–even insisting on one’s own position being right–is out of place in the Christian life. All of it can glorify God.

It’s just that in everything we do in this Christian life, humility makes things better. Try it. Christ increases when we decrease. He becomes greater when we become lesser. The world opens up in glorious new ways when we diminish; when we relinquish our insistence on being at the center of it. The jasmine smells sweeter and the wine tastes smoother; the faces of strangers across from us in Starbucks–or behind the avatars to which we tweet–become more real and beloved. The cadences of Emily Dickinson poems and summer rainstorms take on greater beauty.

And we look at ourselves in the mirror and consider: This familiar face, ill-proportioned and sunburned; and this fleshly body, experiencer of such pleasure and pain, is far more than just a lonely, isolated mass tweeting its way through life. Through the mirror dimly all we see is the chronically disappointing person who never quite satisfies us: the blogger who is never quite popular enough, the billionaire superhero who still isn’t satisfied, the Facebook poster whose clever or provocative posts don’t ever change anyone’s minds.

But in Christ we see more clearly the truth about ourselves: that we are the beloved property of the God of all creation, Who invites us (if we are willing to give up our own sovereignty) to be used as a specific piece of a spectacular plan, far grander than those plans which our own minds conjure up. Is this something that should give us big heads? No. But it should give us hope.

Superficially Innoccuous Practices and Why We should Care about Tattoos

My piece at Relevant on tattoos (yes, another) came out last week and commenters, well, let’s just say they didn’t quite get it.

The general sentiment was something along the lines of “Who cares?,” a response I would rebuke if I didn’t understand it so well.  Indeed, in the book I anticipated the point, noting that among the pantheon of concerns tattoos probably ranked somewhere near the bottom.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care.  Younger Christians often want to shout “every square inch” along with the Kuyperians until, apparently, we start considering the inches of their skin.  Then the exercise is apparently reduced to legalistic jockeying, an attempt to see who can become the most restrictive while ignoring all those verses about God caring about the heart.

But tattoos still matter. The comments at Relevant are about as good a representation of how evangelicals think about ethics—for good and ill—as ever I’ve seen.  Tattoos are helpful to think about because, well, we can think about them without people throwing us over for being heretics.  It’s a somewhat safer question to ask than those questions about, say, bioethics even though the way in which the Bible intersects with both topics is roughly the same.

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, got married this weekend.  A notable event in these parts only because it prompted this bit by James Poulos, one of the smartest folks I know and one of the few writers whose every word I try to consume:

The real fear about advertising — and so much else — is that its superficially innocuous practices will lead us to live in ways we don’t want to because we’re already in a state of vulnerability and confusion that reaches too deep into our psyches to be corrected or protected against.

Any critique of tattoos in contemporary evangelical culture has to include the fact of advertising.  The phenomenon is an indication of how deeply wedded to consumer culture we are as Christians, of how much we have borrowed the script for our lives from the world around us.  Not necessarily problematic in every instance, but worth noting nonetheless.   The thing can’t be understood without knowing its history and emergence, and I assure you that Christians didn’t get the tattooing habit from sitting around reading Revelation.

Tattoos may be innocuous as a social practice.  Or they may only be superficially innocuous, a practice that has the appearance of harmlessness while revealing and reinforcing a diseased understanding of who we are meant to be in the world.   To me, the question is still an open one.  But given the popularity of the form of self-expression, it’s a question worth asking. 

Let me add this in defense of thinking long and hard about tattoos.  Some issues, like homosexuality, are so contentious and have so much wrapped up in them that any genuine inquiry is all but closed off before the conversation begins.  Folks know the right answers and there’s a lot at stake if someone deviates.  The social pressures to conform are high because of how much is at stake.

There’s not much that hangs on tattoos, which is why they are so helpful as a test case for our intuitions.  We can have genuine inquiry about them, we can work to see whether our method of reading Scripture actually suffices, and discern how Scripture intersects with the world.  All the skills, I’d point out, we need on issues of greater importance.

In order to understand the world in which we live and thereby more clearly grasp our place within it, sometimes it is more effective to put questions to it that seem irrelevant than those which are incredibly contentious at the front.  The forces and dynamics that have made tattoos a plausible option aren’t simply limited to aesthetics and self-expression.  And even if they were, what happens in one sphere of life shapes the whole.

 

Made in the USA

A few weeks ago I watched this testimony given by Mike Rowe in front of the Senate. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. If you haven’t already seen it, watch now. It’s only 6 minutes long and well worth your time.

Rowe’s speech impressed me because it isn’t, at it’s core, about policy, but about values. At the heart of his talk is a fundamental economic problem facing the United States, “We talk about creating millions of shovel ready jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.” I couldn’t help but think that most of the girls I know wouldn’t ever consider dating a plumber–myself included. My hunch is that this prejudice has developed because we’ve become so used to specialization and outsourcing that we figure someone who has chosen a certain job is no good for anything else; therefore a professor must be smart and interesting, but a plumber is merely someone who messes around with pipes; boring and probably a bit dim.

But since when did the life of our minds have to dictate how we made our living? Have we become so poor at being self-taught or multi-faceted that we assume we are our jobs? Or, perhaps worse yet, has valuing strong minds made us too proud to work with our hands, so that we struggle through part time teaching jobs or terrible freelancing gigs rather than just get dirty and make a good living, helping to build our country while we’re at it.

Perhaps it seems odd (or even hypocritical) that this is what I’m writing about on a blog published by a lot of highly educated white kids, all of whom use their brains more than their hands to support themselves financially. But in the last couple of years, I’ve found myself one of several communities of friends who have all earned Master’s degrees, been granted fellowships, achieved 4.0s and honors distinctions, and are now unable to make a living.

This same theme has come up in some of the conversation surrounding Apple’s manufacturing processes. Last week the New York Times reported that the fact that foreign labor is cheaper is now not the primary reason that American manufactures are employing them; it’s because they’re better. “It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.”

My dad’s a salesman by trade but an engineer at heart; he owns a company that sells a lot of things made of metal that make machines turn and move and stop and start. His industry keeps him right in the thick of manufacturing, building, mining, and generally, people who do stuff that make our world work. He’s been telling me for a while that all any of my friends need to do to get a job that will support them for life is learn to weld. The problem is, no one knows how.