Engagement is Discipleship

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.

As Christians face more direct opposition from cultural powers, we should consider Rod Dreher’s recent discussions of the Benedict Option and the Jeremiah Option. The former represents a more “separatist” approach to cultural or political engagement and the latter embraces “assimilation” as a means of cultural survival. The struggle to maintain our Christian identity against a cultural onslaught that delights to seduce us into impotence has never been easy. However, it is crucial to recognize that engagement is an element of discipleship and the immanence of our witness is part of our obedience. If the Benedict Option is to represent a faithful community, it must be a witnessing and serving presence that bears the cost of following Christ.

Counterfeit, culturally acceptable Christianity is more dangerous to true faith than active and virulent persecution. This point is not disputed among most thoughtful Benedict Option supporters (indeed, Rod’s post about it is one of the best), but it is important to take up first because isolation from the world is not only unfaithful but poisonous to faith. Heeding James’ command to not be “polluted by the world” will often protect us from the seductive lies of the Satan, but it can also just as easily seduce us into Pharasaism. Most of us have read or met former Christians who have been inoculated against the faith by harsh, legalistic religiosity. In these cases, misapplication of the principle behind the Benedict Option has done harm to souls because of the inherent danger in isolation. Increasing the distance from a world in need proportionately threatens both individuals and communities; we need to intimately know the lost people and broken communities we are called to love in order to temper and strengthen our witness to them.

If we look to the Bible, we see that this is because God’s commands to evangelize and disciple are consistently linked with our prosperity as the people of God, from The Great Commission to the Kingdom parables or God’s instruction to the church in Philadelphia. Our faithfulness to doctrine is inseparable from our engagement with the world; as Jesus’ power was so great that the touch of the bleeding woman made her clean rather than Him unclean, so our interactions with the fallen world participate in God’s redemption of it. This is not a call to passively consume cultural products or merely imitate trendy practices, for a facile familiarity with other perspectives will only breed more ignorance. Instead, we need to spend time listening carefully to people whom we know and speaking boldly once we have demonstrated our commitment to them.

A community that is consistently interacting with lost neighbors and taking our stand at the gates of Hell must also hunker down regularly for the sort of intense reflection and spiritual isolation that the Benedict Option cherishes. This is where the Benedict Option apologists are most insightful: it is in contemplation, rest, and tightly-knit community that we are primarily given what God entrusts us to give away in turn. However, without a constant inflow of both needy souls to bless and lost opponents to challenge us, our faith will become as atrophied and grotesque as an athlete who eats the 10,000-calorie Olympic diet but never competes in a race. Just as our questions and doubts are shaped by the ends to which we ask them, so our rest and retreat are shaped by the ends for which we undertake them. Continue reading

Marry or Burn?

Hannah R. Anderson lives in Roanoke, Virginia, with her husband and three young children. In the in-between moments, she is a freelance writer and blogs at www.sometimesalight.com. She is the author of Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image (Moody, 2014). You can follow her on Twitter.

I recently read an article that argued against early marriage as a way to fight sexual temptation. It seems that in response to the cultural trend to delay marriage, some evangelical churches have started promoting early marriage as a way of pursuing sexual purity. The author took issue with this approach, noting that marriage itself is not enough to ensure virtue because it can’t change the heart; it simply changes the boundaries of chastity.

A lot of my friends read the piece as well. Several responded with hearty amens while others wisely pushed back a bit. In our ensuing conversations, one question kept recurring: “Didn’t Paul advocate for marriage as a way to fight temptation in I Corinthians 7? Didn’t he write: ‘But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion’?” Privately, Mere-O’s own Matt Anderson even suggested that the author had committed a part/whole fallacy, arguing that:

the recommendation to marry young isn’t rooted in the notion that marrying will solve *all* your problems with respect to lust or sexual temptation or anything else.  But it seems like it actually does in fact solve some of those problems.

I’ve thought a lot about the piece, in part, because I myself was married at the ripe old age of 22. I’ve also thought about it because in the decade plus, I’ve seen too many early marriages disintegrate—most often because of sexual sin. But I suppose the main reason I’m still thinking about this piece is because I wrote it.

Core Assumptions

Since writing “Getting Married Is Not Enough to Fight Sexual Temptation,” I’ve realized that I made certain assumptions that I did not articulate well, assumptions that are essential to explaining why I both embrace Paul’s advice to marry to avoid sexual temptation as well as why I’m uncomfortable with evangelicals offering the very same advice. Truthfully, it has little to do with the timing of marriage so much as the presuppositions we have about marriage, singleness, and sexuality.

My main concern is that when evangelicals suggest early marriage as a means of fighting sexual temptation, we are not actually suggesting the same thing the Apostle Paul is because we do not (by and large) share his core assumptions about the goodness of singleness, submission to God’s providence, the inherent difficulties of marriage, and the rightness of sexual passion. Detached from these things, the current advice to marry to avoid sexual temptation plays out very differently than Paul’s does. This does not mean that I Corinthians 7 is irrelevant to our current dilemma but that we will only profit from it if we embrace the whole of Paul’s sexual ethic. That means several things.

First, we must develop a robust understanding of marriage and singleness as equally beneficial for kingdom living. For various reasons, evangelicals tend to privilege marriage over singleness—a far cry from what Paul writes in I Corinthians 7. For example, it’s not unusual for evangelicals to question whether a man could be a pastor if he is not also “the husband of one wife.” Paul, however, indicates that family life can actually be a distraction to service.

The problem for us is this: In a subculture that can easily idolize marriage, further promoting marriage as a way to fight sexual sin may confirm for young people that their greatest good is indeed found in marriage—including their ability to live a pure life. But for Paul, our greatest good is found in serving the kingdom, with the choice of whether or not to marry always being subject to what will best facilitate God’s work. In fact, Paul’s advice to marry to avoid sexual sin is not an end in itself but a means to an end; we fight for purity—whether in singleness or in marriage—because sexual sin will undermine the cause of the kingdom.

Second, we must cultivate an appreciation for the difference between natural passion and lust. Unfortunately for many young evangelicals, the rhetoric of the purity culture has collapsed these two categories into one, so that it’s hard for some to tell the difference between being attracted to a woman and lusting after her. In certain quarters, the rhetoric has been so strong that young women, after years of being taught to view their bodies and longings with shame, find it difficult to embrace sexual desire even within marriage.

Paul, on the other hand, understands the goodness of natural passion and argues for marriage as a way to preserve it, to protect it from evil. But for those who do not have such a category, marriage becomes a way to legitimize sex, to take something that is “wrong” and make it “right.” So when we tell young people to marry in order to avoid temptation, they hear “marry to fix sexual sin” simply because they cannot conceive of a category where sexual longing isn’t sinful. As a result, those entrenched in true sin (such as pornography or promiscuity) logically believe that marriage has the capacity to heal them as well because we have not clearly articulated the type of sexual longings that marriage can fulfill—sexual longings that are already good and natural.

Whole > Sum of the Parts

In order for us to benefit from Paul’s advice to marry to avoid sexual temptation, we must understand that it is contingent on the other truths woven throughout the rest of the chapter. Apart from them, it becomes meaningless. We will never understand the value of marriage to the kingdom if we do not also understand the value of singleness to the kingdom. We will never understand the destructiveness of deviant sex unless we understand the beauty and honor of married sex. At the same time, we can’t accurately celebrate the blessings of marriage—of which sex is one—unless we also articulate the stresses of marriage. Because if we’re completely honest, we must acknowledge that in the very same passage in which Paul advocates for marriage, he also advocates against it.

Held in tension, the opposing truths of I Corinthians 7 present a robust picture of the place of marriage, sex, and celibacy in the kingdom. When taken as a whole, this Scripture may be among the most relevant for a generation plagued by confusion on these issues. On the other hand, if we ignore the broader context and simply co-opt Paul’s advice to “marry to avoid sexual temptation,” we may accomplish the exact opposite of what we hope for. Young evangelicals may indeed marry early, but don’t be surprised if they also end up marrying “early and often.”

The Fatal Tensions of the Fight Churches

“It’s physics, basically.  You bend the guy the other direction than God intended.”

Or so says Paul Burress, pastor of Victory Church and central character in Fight Church, the new documentary co-directed by Brian Storkel.  Like Holy Rollers, Storkel’s previous effort, Fight Church is a sympathetic-but-not-uncritical account of an unconventional religious practice—that is, an entirely conventional practice which some Christians have dressed up with a patina of theological justifications and clichés. Burress’s church is one of some alleged 700 churches in the United States that have taken to the increasingly popular sport of mixed-martial arts as a form of Christian witness.  Fight Church doesn’t pull its punches: “Can you love your neighbor as yourself, while at the same time kneeing him in the face…as hard as you can?  is the question that the trailer poses and which the film carefully considers.Fight Church

The filmmakers chart a few pastors closely, and put their justifications in a nice dialogue with a movement to keep MMA illegal in New York.  The close-up on the lives of these pastors is undoubtedly helpful:  it’s not easy, after all, to understand the texture of the beliefs and commitments of those engaging in practices we find idiosyncratic (at best) from a distance.  And with one or two exceptions, most of the pastors featured seemed like nice guys, with supportive families and an intense sincerity about their convictions.  At least as much as the film showed us, anyway.  A cynic might allege that some pastors master the art of faking the authenticity required for the job, and cynics aren’t always wrong. But part of the conflict the film induces, in fact, for some Christian viewers may be to wonder how nice guys could go so far wrong.

But the filmmakers may also make their study too close to engender a proper understanding of why MMA has moved nearer the center of American religious communities. There are the occasional and expected bits about how the church has ‘feminized’ men, but almost no exploration of what this means. I was surprised, and mildly impressed, to realize at the end of the film that Tyler Durden hadn’t been mentioned at all.  The narrow focus of the filmmakers leaves so many questions about MMA itself unexplored: the film almost makes it feel like MMA has always been there, rather than being itself a recent phenomenon with its own intrinsic meaning and questions. Whatever else we make about it, Fight Club found its way to a sympathetic male audience somehow.  Without more broadly contextualizing the kind of life which fight clubs are a reaction against, it’s harder to properly understand the tacit and embedded reasons within the practice that those Christians who undertake it must assume.  MMA itself may be innocuous, or only superficially so, but it’s easier to tell when we understand the conditions of its emergence.

That complaint aside, though, the film succeeds at doing what Storkel and company do so well: provoking interesting questions and presenting a range of opinions on them, which makes excellent fodder for thought. I said, though, that the filmmakers are not entirely uncritical: they are in a corner, and that corner is sparring with the fight church guys. The film tacitly raises the question of how children are being formed in these communities, but does not (alas) deal extensively with it.  Which is too bad, because it’s one of the most troubling aspects that shows up on screen, and by leaving it tacit in the images it seems as though Storkel and company are making the critique more effective than if they dealt with it explicitly.  The camera stays on one young fellow who takes a turn in the ring and sits crying afterward. While that’s an unhappy image, it’s also not so nearly as disturbing as the image of an eight-year old or so boy out shooting guns with his father (who is so amped up that he couldn’t even imagine critiques of fight churches, unlike the others in the film). Yes, he’s supervised, but it’s still jarring to see. Why are they out shooting?  There is no reason given, and the viewer is left to assume that there’s a short line between the kind of hyper-masculinity that partakes in fight clubs and the violence that guns at least signify.

Of course, nothing I’ve said actually addresses the substantive question of whether Christianity and MMA inherently conflict with each other. For that, I would encourage readers to consider the most astute theological analysis of the question I’ve read, which was written by a one-time participant in the sport and which endeavors—rightly—to take its Christian advocates and practitioners seriously as dialogue partners:

During the fight, I had to ignore not only my body but my opponent’s body as well—which is to say I had to ignore him. After taking an opponent down to the ground, I would hit him until he decided it wasn’t worth it anymore and gave up by tapping out. Some opponents were more stubborn than others and thus needed more convincing than others, but I always vowed to never hit them any more than I needed to in order to get them to tap out—witness the triumph of rational morality, or to use the language of Jus In Bello, “proportionality”!…

In all these ways—in my training, in the moments leading up to the fight, in the fight itself, and especially in the days following the fight—the way to excel as a fighter was not by living as an integrated human body, but rather by (somehow!) detaching my “self” from my body. So I agree with the MMA Christians in their insistence that any account of masculinity must also offer an account of embodiment. And yet, I simply observe that the successful mixed martial artist must subscribe to a false account—one in which pain is not real and in which human beings are somehow outside of or apart from the body.

I have no way of telling whether this recounting of MMA’s effects is accurate, nor have I any reason to doubt it. But I’d note that this kind of ‘disintegration’ from the sport seems like an exaggerated form of the kind of distancing from our bodies that we experience in any sort of pain. Physical suffering has that kind of effect: we say “my arm hurts” when our pain sensors intrude on our conscious experience, rather than “I hurt.”  Nor is such momentary fragmentation necessarily vicious:  a person who is ‘out of shape’ may not feel like getting out of bed the day after an intensely difficult workout, after all, even though overcoming that kind of pain and the distancing from our bodies it entails may be what they need to achieve a more healthy integration. (If you ask me whether I have experience of this, I will say that I am well acquainted with being ‘out of shape’ but not so much the latter phenomenon.  Draw your own conclusions.)

Still, MMA is not a workout, and whether it is licit for Christians to undertake has to involve considering how we treat our neighbor within the practice.  Not every contest of strength is wrong, it seems to me:  wrestling as an activity aims at throwing one’s opponent to the ground and immobilizing them. Arm wrestling is a contest of strength of an even more benign sort. Such demonstrations of strength and weakness are enjoyable to some men and women (and highly dubious to others), and while I’m strongly averse to infusing them with testosterone so that they become litmus tests of manhood, it’s hard to think of a serious objection to them, either.

Whether MMA falls along this spectrum or is of a different kind of thing is a difficult question. The fusion of martial arts, boxing, and wrestling and the aesthetics of the cage and the ring give it a gritty atmosphere (which was unquestionably pronounced in its early years, but I understand has been sanitized somewhat to reach a more mainstream audience) that seems to want to incorporate the no-holds-barred mentality of a street fight and its taboo connotations into the living room. I’m an outsider both as a viewer and a participant, but from a distance the sport seems to thrive on a kind of bloodthirstiness that aims at harming one’s opponent (like boxing) and winning submission not necessarily through immobilizing or overpowering one’s opponent but incapacitating them such that, if the defeat is serious enough, their body temporarily loses the ability to function altogether. And therein, it seems to me, lies a moral world of difference.

I’m an MMA skeptic, then, and this film doesn’t help persuade me not to be from a theological standpoint.  But then, I came into it having written a book on a closely related subject, and so am in danger of confirmation bias.  Take that as you will.  But the kinds of justifications offered by pastors were most frequently just the sort of pragmatic, anti-theological ‘reasons’ that come up in related discussions like tattoos, which leave no room for any kind of limits on our “Christian witness” besides those which are unquestionably explicit in Scripture itself.  Yes, tough guys need Jesus: but surely starting a fight club in the church basement is not the only way (or even the best) to reach them, is it?  Perhaps we should think about that for a while sometime.  After all, in my experience the pragmatic justification for these kinds of programs is always the least creative and least innovative. Such justifications somehow manage to presuppose the worst of the very people they’re trying to reach—namely, that they are interested in and would only be fully satisfied by a church which can slake their thirst for just this kind of practice. And they infantilize the churches that undertake them, for they cheapen the very mysteries and sanctity of holiness which they have been entrusted to bear witness to.

I come now to the end (really): the Fight Church phenomenon is really nothing more than a passing fad and will be forgotten in a decade by everyone except those laborious historians of religion on their never-ending quests to dissect the nature of American evangelicalism. So let me write the obituary now, if only for posterity:  at the heart of the fight churches were both the strengths and weaknesses of the evangelical world. Its best and most reasonable proponents (which are featured in this film) were motivated by an interested seriousness to reach their neighbor with a message that has captivated them, yet were simultaneously unrestrained by any form of moral reasoning other than that which lies on the surface of the Bible and so unable to untangle their own praiseworthy motivations from the problematic and troubling practices which they took shape within.  The Christianity of the fight churches deluded itself into thinking it was strong, while it was actually weak, and into believing that in its battle for the world it had managed to overcome its brittle frailties. And when the struggle with this contradiction wore the fight churches out, they fell to the ground exhausted where they yet lie, exhausted, beaten, and alive only in the knowledge of the God who forgets nothing and those researchers who strive to imitate him.

Fight Church is a film that you should watch.  It’s available both digitally and on DVD.  I received access to a copy for free:  whether my review is worth the money I was paid is a question I leave entirely up to you. 

Medical Missionaries and the Role of Evidence

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.

Slate’s Brian Palmer is right: missionary medicine in Africa is largely unregulated, unstudied, and understaffed. I have seen with my own eyes—and performed with my own hands—clinical decisions that would rightly be considered malpractice in a developed setting because they required that procedures or medications used reserved for specialists be attempted in order to save a life (ask me sometime about the time I did hand surgery.)

What’s more, I did so in Jesus’ name, praying with and for patients whilst frequently consulting a chaplain to do some heavy-duty proselytization. Doing good for the sake of others doesn’t require that one believe in Jesus; there are plenty of organizations and individuals who are providing medical care without any spiritual strings attached. But neither does believing in Jesus necessarily inhibit people from doing good, as Palmer seems to suspect.

This, however, is not the end of the story, though it’s about all that Palmer bothers to talk about. The story of missionary medicine is more complicated— and expansive—than he realizes. One might think that a writer ostensibly dedicated to reason and scientific study might want to investigate the evidence that does exist—sparse as it may be—on the role of faith-based organizations and Christian missionaries within the medical systems of developing countries. Unfortunately, Palmer is content to fire off a few statistics about this bizarre tribe of missionaries and their backwards religious customs, then revel in horror at their unquantified habits of practice.

I have personally sat in meetings and seminars dedicated solely to exploring the ethical issues raised by practicing medicine in limited resources, using Biblical principles to sort out how to best care for patients in a way that is sustainable and merciful. I have listened to countless Christian medical professionals discuss the lengths that they go to in order to invest particularly in professional development for indigenous health practitioners. I have even been party to forums in secular professional meetings where the benefits and risks of an explicitly religious approach to medicine were openly debated. What’s more, these aren’t just my personal vignettes—they are an essential part of the numerous institutions that Christian missionaries train and serve in.

I certainly appreciate the historical nods that Palmer gives in his piece, acknowledging that criticism of missionary doctors goes back a long way. What he doesn’t mention, however, is the fact that the modern enterprises of community health and international development were not only founded on the precepts of missionary medicine, they continue to be shaped by the work of missionaries. Much of the evidence regarding community-based primary health care strategies comes from Christian projects. The Alma Ata Declaration—a WHO document that lays out the foundational principles for evidence-based primary care health systems—was based strongly on the work of Christian missionaries who helped to convene multiple conferences in the 1960’s and 70’s on international health. As Carl Taylor, who helped write the Declaration, stated:

“Coming out of the conference, the entire global health community, developed and developing, was energized to ramp up health care around the world. The tenets of serving the poor, service to the community as a whole, disease prevention, and the pivotal role of women in health, developed following [Christian medical conferences] and refined by Christian Medical Commission, were firmly built into the evolving framework of Primary Health Care.” from The Christian Community’s Contribution to the Evolution of Community-Based Primary Health Care (PDF)

Beyond the crucial role that Christian missionaries played in helping shift the WHO’s conception of health from the previously dominant compartmentalized, top-down model of care delivery to a more generous understanding of health as a function of human flourishing that must be secured as part of a social justice agenda, there are numerous initiatives within missionary organizations today to carry on this legacy. For example, both the ongoing Global Missions Health Conference and the recently launched Christian Journal of Global Health are dedicated to the exact sort of research, analysis, and quality improvement that Palmer thinks are missing from modern missionary medicine– which makes one wonder how hard he (or his editors) actually bothered to look into this subject. Most of the residencies dedicated to training indigenous physicians in Sub-Saharan Africa–whether surgeons or family doctors–are linked to one missionary organization or another. The “current emphasis of international health delivery” of education and training that he mentions? The Christian Medical and Dental Association even has a whole enterprise dedicated to it. A study to quantify who is working where and what they are doing that he hasn’t seen? It’s been out for 4 years! All of this is still bare-bones, but it’s disingenuous to suggest that medical missions is “a mystery,” as Palmer does.

Research and quality improvement are indeed lacking in Sub-Saharan Africa (although Palmer’s mention of PubMed is laughable because you can use PubMed to find all sorts of papers written by missionaries, they just don’t write “Christian Missions” in every title.) This is largely due to funding; most African countries have yet to devote the state funds necessary for ensuring basic healthcare provisions for their people, much less an ample funding source for research akin to the vast resources that NIH, charitable foundations, and pharmaceutical companies pour into investigation in the First World (and let’s not forget that in America we have to have big public campaigns to get our highly educated professionals to actually follow the evidence that has been amassed because said professionals are so bad at following it). Many missionaries—already working long hours with limited resources—still find the time and money to collect clinical data, report it to whatever entity is willing to crunch the numbers, and use the results to shape their practice.

Beyond these concerns—which Palmer freely admits he might relinquish if secular physicians were carrying out the work—lies the question of faith. His willingness to admit that his discomfort about this issue won’t motivate him into an ideological crusade against health professionals who proselytize is certainly commendable. For a non-religious person steeped in a non-religious environment, it certainly seems apropos to be skeptical of missionaries who are open about their faith and wag a finger at those who would dare to use their position as a medical provider to share their beliefs with others. However, such an outlook is downright ignorant of non-Western conceptions of health and disease, which are far more open to spiritual causes of disease and more frank discussions of faith as it relates to health. In a world where cell phones and reverence for one’s ancestors are equally valuable and many people inquire of a witch doctor before seeking medical attention at a hospital, it is not at all unusual or inappropriate to practitioners to discuss their own religion and how it might offer a better perspective on the suffering and fear that their patients are facing. I don’t know if Palmer’s piece was vetted by any Africans, but it doesn’t seem to reflect any understanding of the holistic worldview that I have encountered among non-Western health professionals.

We do need to address the disquieting motivations that medical missionaries sometimes have for their work. Again, the white and wealthy cultural milieu finds animating spiritual convictions frightening for legitimate reasons and has ample historical basis for such fear (although the legacy of colonial missionaries is far more positive than most give credit for.) However, the dedication with which missionaries apply themselves to their work and the places that they choose to invest their labors are inseparable from the theological distinctives of evangelical Christianity. Just as the American Civil Rights Movement or the British anti-slavery movement cannot be understood without a deep appreciation for the religious teachings that shaped them, so missionary medicine is inseparable from the doctrines discerned from the Bible. Jesus’ ministry of preaching and healing are inseparable—the Gospels are full of incidents where He challenges, exhorts, encourages, or rebukes one who has been healed or a crowd around Him as a part of the healing. At the very heart of Christian doctrine is the understanding that as Christ’s suffering delivered us unto life, so our suffering as believers can produce similar fruit in others. Kent Brantly, Olivet Buck, and Jerry Umanos stand as excellent examples of such Passion-motivated compassion. Dr. Brantly survived his suffering for others, but Drs. Buck and Umanos did not—these theological convictions are what make Christian missionary medicine uniquely effective and continue to drive the disproportionate (but still insufficient) number of religiously based medical providers.

The deficiencies that Palmer notes in his piece are real, and mission work is desperately in need of the sort of resources we apply to Western medicine. However, both the spiritual aspects of Christian mission work and the rigor already applied to such medical endeavors are indispensable to the story of healthcare in Africa—even if if Palmer can’t be bothered to discuss them when he bemoans the lack of data plaguing health care abroad. Rather than casting aspersions and “standing aside,” those who love evidence-based practice ought to celebrate what has been done through missionaries, apply what they have to teach us, and follow them to places where just and equitable health systems are still being built.

Mere Fidelity: Should we hope to die at 75?


Should we hope to die at 75?  That’s the premise of a long and provocative article at The Atlantic.  As Ezekiel Emanuel, its author, writes:

Seventy-five years is all I want to live. I want to celebrate my life while I am still in my prime. My daughters and dear friends will continue to try to convince me that I am wrong and can live a valuable life much longer. And I retain the right to change my mind and offer a vigorous and reasoned defense of living as long as possible. That, after all, would mean still being creative after 75.

What should we make of this?  That’s what Derek, Alastair and I discuss on this week’s episode.  Give it a listen and let us know in the comments what you think.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek and Alastair for more tweet-sized brilliance.

 

Mere Fidelity: On Friendship

Wesley Hill is one of the brightest and best young writers evangelical Christianity has. His recent cover story at Christianity Today on friendship raised some interesting questions, which we consider in this episode.  Listen in as we discuss friendship’s proper shape, its limits, and its role in our late-modern world.

My own previous essay responding to Wesley came up.  Read it here if you haven’t yet.

The iTunes feed for Mere Fidelity is here if you’d like to subscribe (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly), and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.

 

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.

The Lavishness of Friendship and a World Beyond Vows

Wesley Hill’s Christianity Today cover story on friendship is now available, and it deserves consideration. The title they gave the online version is terribly misleading, but I’m told (by the author) that the title inside is much more reflective of the piece: “’Til Death Do Us Part: Why Now More Than Ever, We Need to Recover a Rich Vision of Lifelong Friendship.”

Wesley argues—rightly—that evangelicals need to build stronger and more enduring ties of friendship, and that one path toward this would be to recover the “historic Christian practice of vowed friendships.” While he floats the idea of public ceremonies, he recognizes that it is unlikely such rites will take hold anytime soon.

I want to stress how strongly I agree with Wesley’s premise: many of us have very thin understandings of friendship and its importance, and evangelicals absolutely need to disestablish marriage as the only legitimate form of ‘serious’ relationship available to congregants. I’ve written about that before. But while I’m intrigued by Wesley’s suggestion of adoption liturgical rites for non-marital vows, I remain mildly unconvinced by his case. Indeed, I worry that in promoting vows of friendship he actually obscures the marvelous form of love which friendship in its purest form embodies.

Perhaps the way in to my worries is through his deployment of Lewis. Lewis doesn’t come off well in the essay for his claim that friendship is “disembodied,” such that it is an “affair of disentangled, or stripped, minds.” Against that, Wesley suggests that we do not need “disinterested, disembodied camaraderie, in which we keep distance from one anothers’ hearts and stories.” But Lewis grants that our ‘hearts and stories’ are present within a friendship: they are simply not friendship’s substance. As he writes in the bit preceding what Wesley quotes:

In a circle of true Friends each man is simply what he is: stands for nothing but himself. No one cares twopence about anyone else’s family, profession, class, income, race, or previous history. Of course you will get to know about most of these in the end. But casually. They will come out bit by bit, to furnish an illustration or an analogy, to serve as pegs for an anecdote; never for their own sake. That is the kingliness of Friendship. We meet like sovereign princes of independent states, abroad, on neutral ground, freed from our contexts.

Being freed from our contexts is not the same as keeping distance from our “hearts and stories.” Rather, it means recognizing that our contexts, our histories, our biographies are not finally determinative for who we might be. Our narrative is not our destiny, in other words, nor is our union because of the details of our stories. Exploring such histories may be a proximate cause for our gathering together, to be sure, but in its paradigmatic form friendship is not finally determined by them. If that which originally drew us were to somehow fade away, on Lewis’ view the friendship could and should endure. Such friendship is—and I note this with some argument given the thrust of Wesley’s piece—more permanent and universal than the contingencies which make up our respective lives.

Even so, there is no question that for Lewis the friend must “prove himself an ally when an alliance becomes necessary.” When the need arises, friends do what friends do. But for Lewis, friendship is oriented away from such dependencies: as he so elegantly puts it, “The mark of perfect Friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will) but that, having been given, it makes no difference at all.” It has a free and lavish quality, which not every bond among us does. Yes, it’s easiest to conceive of Lewis “with J.R.R. Tolkien or Owen Barfield, discussing some scrap of Old English literature over a pint at the pub.” But his closest friend was his brother Warnie, from whom he was nearly inseparable, and their relationship transversed a variety of forms and settings.

My point here is not simply an attempt to rescue a bit of Lewis that sounds strange to our ears. (Okay, yes, yes that is my point. Are you happy?) Instead, I think that Lewis’ account actually illuminates the heart of friendship in a way that Wesley’s essay obscures. On Lewis’ view, friendship is a form of life free of obligations. But that is not to say that it is a form of life free of entanglements in the lives of others, or a life free of being bothered by the intrusions of living, or a life free to spurn each other at will. Rather, on Lewis’ view, the fulfillment of such needs are transposed into another key: it is not need and duty which governs a friendship, but the supererogatory grace of charity which transcends the responsibilities we have toward one another because of our shared humanity.

To put the point differently: it’s possible to think that friendships do not have or need vows because they are a lesser form of union, and that the lack of public recognition is tied to their weakness. It is also possible, though, that explicit vows and promises create obligations, and that friendship moves us into a realm beyond these. The high point of the Gospels, in my opinion, is the moment when Jesus tells his disciples that they are no longer disciples, but that they are now friends. I’m not prepared to speak of the obligations on God which exist because of the covenant established with man in creation: but it is clear that even if there were obligations, they could not possibly include that. Nor does it seem right to me that such a moment could generate obligations the ways that vows unquestionably do: what duty could bind Jesus’ friendship with us? What obligation might provide the shape to the unmerited gift of his grace? To be friends with God is to participate in a form of charity which is not incompatible with vows per se—lest we deny marriages any form of participation in it as well—but the vow-less, obligation-free character of friendship illuminates the unrestrained nature of charity in a way that a life mediated by vows and promises might not.

While Wesley wants (again, rightly) more forms of relationship to be honored and recognized within the church, he seems to blur the distinctions between marriage and friendship in striving for that. While friendship aims at permanence, because it aims at the permanent things, marital vows inaugurate obligations to permanence. To collapse those together leaves the church with fewer forms of life which witness to the manifold glory of the charity of God, not more, and may in fact inhibit the kind of restoration of friendship to its proper place that both he and I are eager to see.

Mere Fidelity: The Benedict Option

“Is there a lesson here for Christians? Should they take what might be called the “Benedict Option”: communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?”

That’s how Rod Dreher has defined the “Benedict Option,” which he has been discussing over the past few years. In this episode, we take up the question of how Christians should respond to modernity:  should we withdraw or not, and in what way?

We’re joined by special guests Jake Meador (of Mere-O Notes fame!) and Matthew Loftus, both of whom have contributed regularly here at Mere-O.  Give it a listen.

The iTunes feed for Mere Fidelity is here if you’d like to subscribe (thanks to everyone who has reviewed us so kindly), and an RSS feed for the show lives here.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

Finally, as always, follow Derek, Jake, and Matthew for more tweet-sized brilliance.

 

The Mark Driscoll School of Leadership

For months now, I’ve been wanting to write something about the Mark Driscoll saga, but I’ve never quite found the words.

I wanted to argue that some of the charges of plagiarism were overblown, but I didn’t want to come off as blindly defending one of my “tribe.”

I wanted to explain why using ResultSource to game the New York Times bestseller list seemed like a permissible marketing practice to me, but I didn’t want to defend something that Driscoll, himself, had since disavowed.

I wanted to shame those dredging up decade-old anonymous message board posts (that had since been repented of) as disqualifying Driscoll from ministry, but I didn’t want to whitewash what were sinfully intemperate statements.

I wanted to question who had appointed Warren Throckmorton as the Grand Inquisitor into Driscoll’s malfeasance, but I didn’t want to come off as defensively attacking the messenger heralding Driscoll’s downfall.

I wanted to chide the Acts 29 leadership team for removing Driscoll under a “totality of the circumstances” test borrowed from Supreme Court jurisprudence and not found within scripture or church confession, but I didn’t want to speak for fear that I was unaware of some truly damning action that justified their decision.

But then I read a description of his actions that crystallized the issue for me.

Before he was deposed, Driscoll had a reputation internally for acting like a tyrant. He regularly belittled people, swore at them, and pressured them until they reached their breaking point. In the pursuit of greatness he cast aside politeness and empathy. His verbal abuse never stopped. From one reported about a half-hour “public humiliation” Driscoll doled out on his staff:

“Can anyone tell me what this initiative was supposed to do?” Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, “So why the f–k doesn’t it do that?”

“You’ve tarnished Mars Hill’s reputation,” he told them. “You should hate each other for having let each other down.”

One journalist describes Driscolls’ rough treatment of underlings:

He would praise and inspire them, often in very creative ways, but he would also resort to intimidating, goading, berating, belittling, and even humiliating them… When he was Bad Mark, he didn’t seem to care about the severe damage he caused to egos or emotions… suddenly and unexpectedly, he would look at something they were working on say that it “sucked,” it was “shit.”

We all knew that Driscoll was nicknamed the cussing pastor, but these behaviors are truly reprehensible. His abuse needed to be stopped.

Just one thing, though, before we rush to judgment. Those lines were not written about Driscoll. Those are the abusive workplace patterns of Steve Jobs.

Leading Like Jobs

Mark Driscoll is not the first chief executive who has been known for dressing down his subordinates. Steve Jobs didn’t allow personal niceties or corporate inertia to prevent him from focusing on turning out the best possible product on schedule. He would upbraid partner companies for falling behind schedule. He offered to hire people with abrasive faint praise like, “Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit so why don’t you come work for me.” He fired people on the spot in front of their teams for failure to get a program up to snuff. Continue reading