The conservative evangelical world has confronted stories over the past two weeks of defectors and would-be defectors to the traditional view of marriage. Hillsong, the mega-mega church from Australia who are re-colonizing the West with their church plants, found themselves under the spotlight precisely by trying to avoid it. Conservatives denounced them, led by one-time Mere-O writer Andrew Walker, and they promptly came out and said that Saint Paul was right, guys, and everything is A-OK. Then Jonathan Merritt wrote a story on David Gushee’s change of heart that was sent around with trumpets and fanfare.
I was mildly critical of both Andrew and Jonathan’s pieces for related but slightly different reasons. I’d like to say one or two more things about my reasons here, not to reopen old wounds but because I think there’s something to learn. And by that I mean I have something to learn, because the Good Lord knows I’m implicated in what I’m about to say.
I was once asked by a reporter whether I thought the “young evangelicals” were going to give up the bigotry of their parents. After I finished laughing, I promptly rejected the question and provide a different one of my own. The poor reporter (probably) wasn’t malicious, but she didn’t have many theological categories either. We talked for an hour…and exactly three of my sentences appeared in print.
I tell that story only to highlight one fact about the press, which by now is well known: many of its members simply don’t “get religion.” Just two days ago, a major news organization published a story that would be laughable, except it isn’t: it’s sad, and media theological ignorance does genuine harm to the cause of Christ.
I say this because I can see at least some decent reasons why a minister of the Gospel might opt to filibuster when the local newspaper reporter asks for his views on sex. The newspaper is not the political authority that Paul preaches to, no matter how much we like to speak of “popular opinion” in juridical terms. The pastor would not be pronouncing the Gospel in unmediated fashion to the world: he’s speaking to a reporter who may or may not faithfully present his views. And neither is the newspaper column the pulpit, which is where the central political and theological (verbal) announcement of the church occurs. He cannot prevent the reporter from listening to his sermons, nor should he try. But he is under no obligation to invite their attention, nor should he feel any compulsion to answer their questions. The Church should proceed on these issues in its own way and time, and that way and time is not that of the press.
Hillsong, of course, brought the media down upon their head and then tried to squirm through their uncomfortable questions, which strikes me as an obvious case of wanting to have their cake and eat it too. But it is the conservative response that interests me most, and the quickness by which people like Walker concluded that Hillsong was simply preparing to change their position. Alan Jacobs, in a more measured fashion, also pointed out that these “journeys” institutions are on only lead to one spot. The point is well made, and I sympathize with it. After all, it has history and statistics on its side—look at those United Methodists and Episcopalians, after all!—and who wants to argue with those?
Except Christians, anyway. Christians want to argue with history and statistics and all the other tools that give off the impression the “journey” inevitably leads away from orthodoxy. I understand (and share!) the skepticism about Hillsong and the concern they will become unorthodox to maintain their buildings and their crowds. But such a skepticism cannot be the first or final word, nor should it pervade our response to their wanderings. Any counsel or response we offer must be saturated in hope, which means we cannot consign people to a path before they have walked it. No institution is on a journey toward a more conservative outlook—yet. They might be, though, if at the moment of hesitation conservatives would walk along side them. Hillsong or any other organization may have a grand reversal, just as there may yet be a glorious revival.
“For the one who is not against us is for us.” That word from the Gospel is not the only word our Savior gives to help us understand how we might relate to those outside the faith, but it is a word which deserves its place. Our Lord goes on to say that anyone who gives us a cup of water because we belong to Christ “will by no means lose his reward.” But the question for conservatives runs the opposite direction: If Hillsong or anyone else who gets weak-kneed on marriage “belongs to Christ,” will we offer them a cup of water or shake the dust from our feet? If they never belonged to Christ, then there is no reason to respond at all: they are who we thought they were, we might say, and go on our way.
Pulling the denunciation trigger quickly is an obvious path toward ensuring the clarifying press release is written, which is the only evidence many conservatives need to show the denunciatory strategy “works.” But the effort will ultimately come to nothing as long as it reinforces the rotten idea that the only movement possible is away from orthodoxy, not toward it. Denunciations and warnings have their place, just as the Bible’s warning passages have a serious place in the life of the church. But those do not come with the overtones of an inevitable apostasy, the way the conservative response to Hillsong did.
Walker’s post was aptly titled a “Church in Exile,” a mentality that unnecessarily hastens the exit of those on the fringes precisely because being a beleaguered minority becomes a necessary part of its self-consciousness. (The language of “faithful minority”, which Russell Moore has deployed at points, has the same kind of effect.) A church in exile will have more of an interest in “shoring up the faithful” than winning converts, precisely because it views its relationship to the surrounding world in necessarily oppositional terms. Yet it paradoxically seems to be proceeding by drawing the lines so narrowly around the “faithful” such that no church or institution who hesitates can have a place. The unintended casualties in such an environment are those who have hesitations and doubts about the traditional view: the stakes on this issue are unquestionably high, but if conservatives decide to greet every organization that seems to waffle with the swift word of warning I suspect they may find themselves much lonelier much faster than they need be.
“Breaking: Leading Evangelical Ethicist Wakes Up Thinking That the Gospel and Gay Marriage are Not Compatible, Just Like Yesterday.”
Besides being much too long, that’s not the kind of headline we’re going to see from the press anytime soon, at least not unaccompanied by a story filled with derision. And that is understandable: It is only news when someone of influences changes their mind. The news exists to tell us things we don’t know, not things we already do.
But therein lies a deep problem for how Christians should think of the media’s involvement in the debates within the church. For Augustine, curiosity is a vice which is marked in part by the aspiration for novelty: it seeks to comprehend that which was previously unknown. Our modern news obsession and the chatter (like this!) which accompanies it are structured by what the ancients considered an intellectual disease. The widespread interest in the “young evangelicals” (or now, “millennial Christians”)—of which I have been one of the main partakers of—is itself simply a part of the pervasively progressive assumptions which underly our media pursuits. There is no story if the young evangelicals are just like the old ones. The media culture depends upon the world being different than it is now, and so they endlessly look for such changes and so help bring them into being.
In that sense, stories about Gushee and Hillsong don’t have the kind of neutrality that newspaper people claim for them. It’s important to understand my point, as I’m not suggesting anything about the intentions of their writers. No journalist worth their salt deliberately sets an agenda that way. But the ‘newsworthiness’ of such accounts depends upon and deepens our fixation with whether evangelicals will stay orthodox on the question of marriage, and as such it has a formative effect as much as it responds to a “market demand.” If the underlying presuppositions of our media diet changed, Gushee’s shift would evoke more of a shrug: it’s not a story if Gushee had gone from being a just warrior to a pacifist, for instance, or vice versa (I don’t actually know his position on the question). We care not just about Gushee changing his mind, but changing his mind in this way because of the pervasive unsettledness on the question of marriage. But the media makes us care, too, in their selection and foregrounding of the accounts that they present.
It’s by no means clear to me that this media fixation is healthy for the life of the church, or for our roles within it. It is clear to me that evangelicals have a nasty case of it; our lack of interest in denominational and other institutional structures gives media stories an undue influence. In a weird way, conservative evangelicals fighting proxy-battles for orthodoxy through the media must undermine their own congregationalist ecclesiology, as bloggers claim for themselves the responsibility of shepherds for abstracted flocks which will never meet together, and challenge the authoritative guidance of local church pastors (like Hillsong’s) who have been entrusted by God for the care of their people. And they undermine their own conservative temperament, prescribing for every religious institution a path that pays no heed to how the particularities of time and space might determine the right course. Paradoxically, it’s just in those particular institutions where the long, plodding work of persuasion and discernment on these issues needs to happen. That Hillsong felt compelled to publicly respond with their clarification is, on this score, as troubling as their original statement itself.
Perhaps most troublingly, letting the news cycle determine our debates encourages a widespread hastiness to ‘set the narrative’ and, crassly, capture those retweets. Conservative evangelicals like me who have long mocked being ‘relevant’ are often the first people with a word about the controversy of the day. James 1:19 can mean many things, but at a minimum it seems to mean that we should be slow to speak (there’s your fancy exegesis for those who are scoring at home). The news cycle waits for no one, though, and so we hastily draw our conclusions before all the facts are even in.
I suspect that this media fixation and our curiosity for the ‘new’ breeds a kind of sympathy with progressive intuitions. The media’s interest in ‘novelty’ invariably brings more extreme forms of life into the foreground. The growing interest in polyamory at places like The Atlantic seems to be part of this trajectory: talking about gay unions is so 2000s, after all. The main counterexamples to my thesis, though, are those conservatives who themselves changed their minds, like Rosaria Butterfield. Her astonishing rise is a bit like an oasis in the desert: evangelicals rushed to her story out of a kind of desperation to counter a narrative that seems so pervasive around them. Matthew Schmitz’s account has a similar feeling. But such stories are indications of how deeply saturated by novelty our minds have become. The good news is good precisely because as news it is as old as the universe itself. At the end of the day, orthodoxy is going to be (as C.S. Lewis called it) the “same old thing.”
In a world where progressive impulses dominate, pessimism has an invaluable social role. The optimistic attitude toward ‘change’ is built into the progressive temperament, which loads the dice in its favor and then claims that the game is not rigged at all. (Roger Scruton’s book defending this thesis is the best on the subject.) The effect of this is that people who raise cautions or worries get cast as ‘curmudgeons’ or ‘cranky,’ which is the easiest and fastest way for progressives to delegitimize their critics. Casting those who disagree as “old” is not a mark of respect, even though it should be. It is instead a capitulation to the very culture of youth which flows from the same diseased fixation on the ‘new.’
I have myself been so characterized recently, and I understand well the dynamics that produce the charge. The easiest suggestion is that I am, in fact, becoming a curmudgeon and a crank in my middle age. And that may be right. Those I have disagreed with would probably be happy to so write me off: it is easy to ignore cranks, even when they provide reasons for their objections (which, whatever else my many failures might be, I have always sought to do).
But even if it is true, I am glad to be old ‘before my time’, for I do not view age as the enemy but as the friend of wisdom. I am increasingly pessimistic about the world, which means the triumphalism and rallying charges of ‘courage’ that my conservative friends have sounded ring hollow to me, and it means that my progressive friends who are joyfully ushering in the next phase of history are no more attractive. (You may feel free to characterize me as full of hubris at this point; I won’t deny it, and almost certainly confess it.) I am pessimistic about the quality of my own efforts this past decade to affect any meaningful change, and I am similarly pessimistic of most everyone else’s. I am pessimistic about the evangelical culture’s hurried, frenetic, passion-driven life, and pessimistic that we will discover the deep wellsprings of quiet, unmoving confidence for when we need it most. I am a pessimist in a world where pessimism is one of the only available sins.
But I have hope, and while my pessimism takes hold my hope grows stronger yet. I once heard Oliver O’Donovan suggest that at the start of the 20th century no one could have predicted that one of the great works of the Spirit would involve a faithful, hitherto unknown Anglican nurse introducing hospice care into the world. And likewise few of us may have eyes to see the great work of God that lies ahead of us. The great crisis of marriage which is now in its final stages (it’s final stages, mind you, not its first) may precipitate the renewal of the church. The explosion of singleness may move evangelicals to recover the witness of celibacy (as, indeed, I’m told ERLC emphasized in their conference this week). The escape from our bodiliness that our culture is awash in may awaken the deepest commitments to the flesh of our Savior in us. The exhaustion from our media-info-tainment diets may deepen our longing for the permanent things and the quiet stillness of prayer. In all this, and in so many more ways which are not now known to us, the Lord may come and renew our world. And the great number of evangelicals who are currently waffling and hesitating on the matter of marriage may awaken once again too, and find themselves on the side of the right. I have no confidence that this will happen: I am increasingly pessimistic about our efforts to bring it about. But I have a growing hope that this or much more may yet come to be.
A final, brief, and personal word: the above reflects my own failures and sins as much or more as it does any of my disagreements. If you wish to find places or ways that I have myself been complicit in the very mentality which I examine here, you will not have to look very far or very long ago (some may say yesterday, even!). My path through this world has been uneven: it has been marked by petty vices and failures, which I have no need to confess here. They are known well enough to myself, to God, and to those who have suffered them. But the one grace I have long thought God has given me was the willingness and strength to plumb those petty sins near to the bottom, to discover within them a path toward becoming more securely wise rather than a path toward my destruction. I have always found it easier to write from my failures, and to urge others away from them with as much grace as I can have.
The simplest explanation for the above is that I simply have a critical spirit with a heart that revels in controversies. That conclusion is not far from the truth, though not nearly so close as people might think. I have always felt free to say what I think, and received my most formative education in an environment where blunt disagreement was a sign of respect. I have never felt the impulse to join the team-mentality that pervades the conservative evangelical world (and which I have oft criticized before), and have been happy to dissent when I have thought dissenting needed to be done. I have always been more inclined to criticize when the format is limited: I save my substantive, positive proposals for the places where I can work them out in full. None of this fits very well in an environment where ‘nice’ is the currency of the day and fawning praise must precede and accompany every disagreement.
But still, you will find places that I count as failures. This post itself might be read as one, in its own way. The paradox which I face, and which I cannot escape, is that in bearing the message I engage in the same vices. The messenger is, in this case, highly unsuited for the task he discerns necessary. Such are, perhaps, the deepest and most profound sources for my pessimism. I am what’s wrong with the world, and I always have been. But so also my hope: the glory and the grace that are not of my own provide assurance and hope that despite all my worst efforts to the contrary, all things will one day be well.
This is really, really good– capturing both the perceptive awareness of multiple streams within Christendom and the relative importance of those streams. I found the reflection on exile/minority status particularly compelling because that sense of embattled minority-ness is so intoxicating, frankly. Developing ecclesiological and non-ecclesiological structures that are draw people up as well as in has been a long struggle, and I have appreciated your thoughts on this subject. I hope there are more to come.
I wonder how you might fit racial discrimination into your analysis of “journeys.”
I will take up my well-worn hobbyhorse once again and say that, from a global and missiological perspective, optimism is a bit more warranted. You mention hospice– whose cultural history ought to be told and remembered among Western evangelicals– and even the potential of the marriage wars for creating something good. From the perspective of sheer numbers, growth in indigenous leadership, decrease in the effects of sin causing death through poverty & hunger, establishment of formational institutions where they simply didn’t exist before, or development of innovative yet faithful methods for church-planting/discipleship/evangelism– take your pick– there’s good news all over. (Hopefully this explains my “missions conference” tweet.) There are significant threats and challenges, for sure, but plenty to look forward to.
Thanks for that, Matthew. I agree the global perspective needs to come to bear. I hope you bring me to one of those conferences at some point.
Matt, I appreciate your conservatism, although personally it I don’t share in it. What I appreciate about it is that you are interested in actually conserving something, not just being a reaction against change.
So it is probably my more hopeful (progressive) attitude speaking, but I think some of your assumptions are wrong.
There are institutions that have become more orthodox (I am using that intentionally instead of conservative). Think of the Worldwide Church of God and its move toward orthodox theology. Or think of the societal changes around the Victorians that as a whole society started being more conservative theologically as well as socially. (Obviously there were some problems with that as well, but it did happen.)
And Millennials are a good example of a group that in many areas has embraced more orthodox behaviors (obviously not all). But they are less involved in drugs, crime, sex out of marriage (at least as teens), etc. I hear from many that are intentionally taking a more moral path as a rejection of their own upbringing. I know that is not quite what you are talking about, but I think pessimism needs to be tempered with some of the actual good news in society.
I think this is precisely what Matt’s arguing.
I guess you are right, but I think he is still too negative. He is suggesting that we should encourage more and discourage less because there is a possibility that some of those might not move toward a liberal direction.
But I think the attitude is still reluctant encouragement. As a progressive that still is fairly conservative in many of my values, I think the attitude that it is all going downhill anyway matters. And I know that Matt is trying to argue against that attitude, but I think he is doing it reluctantly and that reluctance shows.
Maybe I am misreading, but I want to affirm the basic idea of conservatism that Matt has, while suggesting that his pessimism is too strong (although I do understand it.)
But then again, I am not who Matt is writing this to, and I started out my original comment affirming him as he commented about, and I tend to want people to be nicer, so I am probably part of the problem.
Lots of good stuff here. I think that sex is actually a special case of idolatry that is particularly difficult for a society to reverse once gripped by it, but that case is too much to lay out now.
I’m not arguing “reluctantly” that I think social decline is real. I absolutely think it is real, and the emergence of trends like polygamy are evidence (to me) of it. Yes, there are other areas that are fine, and no, the 50s weren’t a golden age. But decadence is a thing (to use Ross Douthat’s term), and I think we live among it.
My case for *encouragement* is not rooted in empirical realities, though: it’s a case for hope and for having our responses structured by that, not by a kind of optimism that things are getting better or if we do this we’ll have ‘success.’
I guess if you don’t have a response that is based in empirical reality then how can you hope short of Christ’s return. Everything is short of our desires because everything is corrupted by sin.
Of course that is true, but if all we can compare to is perfection then what is the point, we are always short, we always lose.
I just am not convinced that the past was nearly as good as many Evangelicals want to make it. Yes gay marriage is new, yes a variety of multiple marriages is coming back. Yes, divorce, even given decrease is historically still pretty high.
But lots of other things are less bad. For instance we don’t think that raping slaves is acceptable. Even fairly early Puritan were fairly sexually active before marriage. And as Karen Swallow Prior’s biography of Hannah More pointed out, pre-Victorian England was pretty rife with prostitution, and licentious living.
Morals around sex are changing. I am not debating that. I agree the changes are concerning and I do think we need to be teaching proper theology of sex and marriage and including a proper place for celibacy is a real need.
My concern is that we are doing that from a place of nostalgia and not historical grounding that what admits to the real sins of our ancestors.
My position *subordinates* history; I’m really not sure how you can read me as being “nostalgic.” I am happy to grant that there were all kinds of evils that existed in all sorts of ways around the world prior to our age.
So yes, I think *hope* is a theological virtue which does not root itself in history per se, but looks for the in-breaking of the Spirit within history when and where he wishes. Which means a limited theory of ‘decadence’ and hope are easily compatible.
Matt I don’t think you are nostalgic. I think many of the ways people hear your arguments is by processing them as nostalgic.
I think this is where our different academic backgrounds are coming into play. Your philosophical/theological background is creating ideas that subordinate history. My sociological/theological background wants to test the validity of an idea by thinking about how it would work in the historic world or with empirical reality.
For instance one of the questions I often bring up when talking about Gay marriage is to ask how you can theologically oppose/support gay marriage but support/oppose abolition of slavery or Jim Crow. Of course there are very good theological ways to do that. (And everyone wants to be on the side of the historical winners.)
But once you move outside of the theologically trained, those discussions break down quickly and what happens as often as not is that people revert and suggest that there is not a good way to support abolition of slavery theologically without significantly altering their theological position.
So I think an argument that does not take into account history and empirical reality has limited ability to move outside to the larger church.
I can’t be responsible for people processing arguments in ways that I am not making them.
“But once you move outside of the theologically trained, those discussions break down quickly and what happens as often as not is that people revert and suggest that there is not a good way to support abolition of slavery theologically without significantly altering their theological position.”
If you start from the position that slavery and gay marriage are commensurate in Scripture or elsewhere, then there are going to be problems, sure. Saying that you are taking into account history by putting them in parallel simply presupposes that your history is right: but the point of taking ‘history’ seriously is to understand the differences, too, and I think the comparison is false and bad straightaway.
Fascinating observations about the work of media, our interest in novelty, and how that affects the church more than we realize. Very perceptive.
Matt, thanks for this post! Very thoughtful, very rich. There are several threads in here worth further conversation, but one particularly worthwhile is everyone’s fascination with media buzz. Evangelicals probably need to do some long, hard thinking on this matter.
One of the major themes within this is the question, what should God’s people really be after? Chesterton talks about it somewhere – maybe in The Everlasting Man – but Lewis addresses it in “The Weight of Glory.” Human beings outlive civilizations. We have 3,000-year-old relics of Greek culture, sure, but you and I and our neighbors will endure the re-creation of the heavens and the earth. “America” will cease to exist; and even, if Os Guinness says, we’ll face God as “Americans,” that’s got to be a pretty insignificant adjective compared to “in Christ” and a host of other things. Obsessing over media buzz – digital flocks, a digital Aeropagus – can lead us to miss the real mission of human beings, in physical churches and congregations.
The other major theme, which is related to the first, is the apt warning against obsessing over novelty. We play a long game in church ministry – we’re working in decades-long lives and movements that span generations. Each day brings its own responsibilities; but checking the global church’s “progress” every day (or maybe even month or year) is like checking our temperature every hour: it’s the wrong timeframe. We should be careful of diverting resources (time, thought, etc.) to the daily Twitter crisis that might be invested more slowly and more fruitfully in the actual human lives of our people.
Thanks, Joseph. That’s a very good word.
[…] Media, Evangelicals, and Me: On Being a Pessimist in a Progressive Age” at Mere Orthodoxy = https://mereorthodoxy.com/media-evangelicals-pessimist-progressive-age/. Anderson does it again with a long but insightful discussion on the relationship between the news […]
Really good, Matt, and really convicting to me as someone who definitely tends to cast himself as “in exile” a lot of the time. I’ll be ruminating on this. I also like the observation about how blogger-bishops undermine their congregational ecclesiology. Coming from a congregationalist movement with a surprising level of homogeneity due to some early, influential publishing operations (the churches of Christ), I see that as something to be on the alert about.
Thanks, Matthew. I understand the temptation to think of ourselves in terms of ‘exile’ full well. I really want to do some patristics reading, though, on whether they had the self-conscious minority rhetoric that we do. I suspect they did not.
“No institution is on a journey toward a more conservative outlook—yet.”
Would not the trajectory of Southern Seminary under Al Mohler’s leadership be an example of this?
I’m genuinely asking as an outside observer.
It’s a good question. It’s not my area of expertise at all, but I think the claim was more narrowly focused to the questions of gay marriage. Limited to that, I don’t think it is, but I could be wrong.
Matthew, thanks for this. This resonates with much of what I have been thinking and processing in my own pastoral context.
One thing that has been helpful to think about is the relationship of “faithful presence within” (outlined by James D. Hunter in “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern Era”) and captured specifically for the church in this white paper by Greg Thompson over at the New City Commons Foundation ( http://www.newcitycommonsfoundation.com/perspective/church-our-time ) wrestling through how the church stays engaged while in exile. I differ from thinking that describing the church in exile is simply a call to shore up the faithful, but is rather recognizing what it is to seek the welfare of the City (Jer. 28-29) while in exile; to maintain the distinctiveness of being God’s people while at the same time being an outpost of grace that has not retreated from local communities, but has instead chosen ways to winsomely but decidedly live out their unique identity in Christ for the sake of the community. To be in exile versus retreat means that our neighbors are not trashing our party, but rather are the men and women whose stories we have been called into intersection with… to embody Shalom as can only be achieved through Jesus.
But I, like you, find myself both engaged and exhausted by the crisis-of-the-day, and likely also must repent of a critical spirit that fuels my speculation and skepticism, rather than the grace that I preach.
Yes, JDH’s book is great. I delivered some remarks in response to him when it first came out. https://mereorthodoxy.com/expecting-to-change-the-world-a-reply-to-james-davison-hunter/
I continue to return to it, though, and learn from it.
“Pulling the denunciation trigger quickly is an obvious path toward ensuring the clarifying press release is written, which is the only evidence many conservatives need to show the denunciatory strategy “works.”
With regards to the Hillsong situation, the “denunciatory” strategy had the excellent effect of producing God-honoring clarity. Hillsong really seemed to want to smother Biblical doctrine in ambiguity, equivocation, and uncertainty. So the rebuke was extremely helpful in overcoming that.
One thing that I didn’t articulate very clearly is that such “clarity” strikes me as a pyrrhic victory. If they are *really* waffling, press releases under duress of pressure aren’t the kind of reformation they need, which must come from within, and will probably create resentment among the leadership toward those conservatives who they should be allied with. That may actually undermine the internal work of reformation by making them skeptical toward conservatives.
One other thought on this: odds are now that the press release is gone, conservatives will send their attention elsewhere and the corrosion of their internal community will continue apace (this is all on the hypothesis that they did this for non-prudential reasons, and were genuinely waffling). The press release and the sense of ‘success’ among conservatives actually lead to a diminished ongoing concern among *us.* See World Vision, for instance, and the amount of attention any conservatives have paid to their internal culture since everything went down earlier this year (none).
The inability of conservatives to trade short-term victories for long-term reformation may be our undoing in the end. That’s my ongoing worry, anyway.
A more real reason to be pessimistic and this is without the help of “progressives” is that the love of money rules over much of the world. It is the reason for the growing wealth disparity and for many of our armed conflicts. It could possibly lead us into a nuclear showdown with Russia if we pursue the Ukraine to hard.
I mention the above because too many of my fellow Christian bloggers are acting like Chicken Little over same-sex marriage because such a marriage signals the end of Christian privilege in our country and thus are discrediting the Gospel with their silence on our world’s economic injustices and the its growing oppression and violence.
It’s not obvious to me at all that progressives are any help in freeing us from the love of money. We are all infected by a form of philanthropy which is the offspring of our mammon worship, as George MacDonald aptly wrote.
Depends on the definition of a “progressive.” For some, progressives include all nonconservatives. Using that definition, we should note that not all progressives are the same. Some seek structural changes in our economic and political systems that allow for democratic control, rather than elite-centered control, and more collective ownership. OWS called for this when they called for changes in our systems so that they would be more based on participation and cooperation than on political passivity and economic competition.
However, if the only group you see when you think of progressives are Democrats, you will only see what you just stated.
Ah, the “No True Scotsman” definition of a “progressive”.
Or, like other groups, progressives are not a monolith.
This post brimmed with Chestertonian wit and Lewis’ rhetorical charm. Some random thoughts while I read:
Regarding your pessimism and musings on the ability to affect change, I think a part of your evolution as a writer (having been reading for almost five years) has been to opine less and to lean on institutional heft more. I believe your imagination for the local church has grown, and with it, a higher view of the church’s ability to affect change locally (true conservatism!) and a lower view for any pundit to change anything nationally. Perhaps I’m wrong, but your writing seems to be getting stronger in this vein.
Regarding your comments on what we think or disagree about in public, I wholeheartedly concur. My undergraduate degree was essentially a research communication degree with a capstone research project. The project I chose was the mass media’s effects on changing political opinions. It turns out, even with biased cable news, study after study over decades showed that the mass media can’t really change public opinion. What it does- and arguably more powerfully does- is shape the things we think and argue about. The media “frames” the political dialogue, even if it doesn’t make people pick which side they are on. Living in Colorado, if politicians and PACs just understood this, I wouldn’t have to suffer as much political commercial droll while watching jeopardy.
Now putting the prior two paragraphs together: in my church filled with many social conservatives, we get begged and pressed often to opine on political issue after political issue from the pulpit. Now, I’ll definitely pick my spots from time to time, but I also know that wading into so-called same-sex marriage conversations requires a lot of nuance, care, and precision. Then, with those folks who beg me, I ask this question: “how come you never ask me to talk about no-fault divorce laws?”
Truly, fundamentally, I think the good news of Jesus Christ will pervade this mess of a culture, riddled with its idols and endure long after our political fights. That’s why we preach about that a lot more, or only talk about political issues in light of the good news of Jesus Christ. The local church can do far more than the pundits. In addition, the good news of Jesus is also why we don’t lurch from topic to topic, because I don’t want the media to set the agenda for what we preach about. And yes, though the media is done talking about it, that should include no-fault divorce laws.
Thanks Dave, for the kind words about my writing. I really am grateful for your focus on the local church, and if I’ve moved in that direction in my thinking it’s partly due to your persistent comments.
Well you should know that I’ve been such a consistent Mere-O reader because of the quality of thought and analysis on many issues. I believe your influence is reaching the local church level because of the many other pastors like me who are influenced by your profound take on things. And I’ve only looked into O’Donovan because of your incessant nods to his thought. Let the mutual love-fest begin.
The lead-in here is a bit specious. The “traditional view of marriage” went by the wayside about a century ago. Even before same-sex marriage came onto the scene in the US, marriage had largely evolved into a contractual, inward-focused institution that centered around the socially legitimate gratification of one’s sexual urges. Heck, even the “nuclear family” is largely a construct of conservative Freudian scholars.
By in large, the evangelical church has followed the general drift of the culture, while proffering a few words of caution and reservation. As Carl Trueman aptly noted a few years back: “The argument for gay marriage proceeds on the basis of a logic which society, and sadly many churches, accepted long ago. Do not fret about when marriage will be redefined. It was. Quite some time back.”
We defected from the traditional view of marriage a long time ago. The only question now is whether we will embrace the logical consequences of that defection or whether we will seek to undo our century-long slide. Picking an arbitrary stopping point in the middle doesn’t exactly make for a defensible position.
Not to be one of those guys who replies to his own comments, but…
I would argue that the prevailing mentality is pragmatic and tribal, not progressive and universal. The progressive arguments for same-sex marriage largely fell flat, after all. Success emerged when its proponents stopped asking people to buy into the merits of same-sex marriage, and merely admit that it caused no material harm to third parties.
Same-sex marriage will only ever appeal to a small minority. In fact, it may even become less common in the coming years. That’s what’s been observed in most countries that have more experience with this novel institution. The acceptance of homosexuality generally leads to the acceptance of more flexible gender roles, and sexual orientation actually becomes less significant to people’s social identity. As a result, people tend to appreciate that there are other inherent complementarities between male and female and elect opposite-sex relationships with greater frequency.
In that sense, the real challenge facing the flavor of evangelicals who hang out here probably won’t have much to do with same-sex marriage. To the contrary, the challenge will come in trying to maintain restrictive gender roles. I suspect that third-wave feminism is about to surge in the US as it has in Europe, which will present challenges both to those who maintain patriarchal gender roles and to those who enter into same-sex marriages.
Did you read the part where I said we were in the final stages, not the first, of the marriage crisis?
I did, but the lead-in gave me doubts as to whether you really believe that. Nor do you provide any explanation as to why evangelicals have generally acquiesced to other cultural departures from traditional marriage (e.g., use of contraceptives, no-fault divorce, etc.), but have elected to draw a line at same-sex marriage.
But I do believe that we’re not about to see same-sex marriages galore. If anything, we’re likely to see a certain queering of the institution of marriage and a move to a more explicitly contractual approach (a la Gary Becker).
Well, if you check out my first book on the subject or any number of other pieces I’ve written on marriage, you can see that I have long argued that the evangelical culture on marriage is diseased.
So your inference about what I “really believe” is amusingly unfounded.
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Fantastic reflections here, Matt.
I’m curious, though, why you identified Andrew Walker’s FT piece as a denunciation lacking in the appropriate hopefulness. Walker opposes a “a gentrified fundamentalist withdrawal rooted in the belief that the
foreignness of Christianity can’t overcome the tired intellectual
patterns of cultural decay,” but he has a great deal of hope:
Isn’t that basically your prescription as well? We are pessimistic that we can overcome the world (or even reform a denomination), but we are hopeful in the faithful work of the Spirit of the one who overcame the world.
My worry with Andrew’s piece is that the hope does not pervade the response: it’s an appendage, rather than the main thing, and as such it allows and enables the denunciation to come pre-emptively.
[…] The Media, Evangelicals, and Me: On Being a Pessimist in a Progressive Age by Matthew Lee Anderson […]
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and heart Matthew. As a member of evangelicalism and the mainstream media, I appreciate your analysis of the cultures.
Perhaps the part that I found most interesting was the paragraph that began with this sentence:
‘The simplest explanation for the above is that I simply have a critical spirit with a heart that revels in controversies.’
I guess I’m grateful that you acknowledged it. But I find it deeply problematic, unhelpful and even hurtful the prevalence of critiquing – and perhaps more importantly the hearts behind it – within evangelicalism and often this blog. Too often it appears that the goal is to be contrarian – almost for the sake of just being it – than to suggest honest and accurate solutions that factor in the lives of people behind our theory and theology.
Is simply acknowledging it enough? Or should something more be done?
This is just the kind of response that grates on me. Over the past decade, I have consistently and repeatedly defended ‘evangelicalism’ against a host of its critics. I’ve written two books that contained not merely reasonably nuanced critiques, but pretty substantive proposals for what should “be done.”
I mentioned the “simplest explanation” not because I think it’s true, but because I think that’s the explanation which many people (wrongly) run to when they encounter someone who *is* critical. There is, like it or not, very little room in most people’s understanding for someone who is simultaneously a fan and a critic, someone who can see the pitfalls and the strengths, and who is willing to say both.
So I am happy you see into the “hearts behind” this blog. But before you make that judgment, you may want to take into account the entire body of work which we have put forward to date.
Also, no, “simply acknowledging” pitfalls is never enough. No one here at Mere-O has ever pretended it was.
I do not know you so I am not drawing a conclusion about your heart – or that of the writers on this blog. I would have never ‘made a judgement’ about the hearts behind this blog had you not acknowledged that your own heart is ‘one that revels in controversies.’ At best, when I encounter something that seems concerning here, I question the heart behind it. But I do not draw a conclusion.
I can take people who are both fans and critics. I deal with it in my work and ministry on a daily basis. But when someone – particularly another person professing to be a follower of Christ – challenges me on my approach, I am not above re-evaluating it.
If you think your approach to addressing these challenges here is sufficient and edifying, carry on. I asked because there have been discussions of real issues here that I think could have been better handled and I assumed that you were open to reflecting on that.
I’m always open to hearing that people think things should be “better handled.” That’s fine. Name names and point to posts.
But your “judgment” doesn’t even take into account the sentence immediately after the one that has transfixed you: “That conclusion is not far from the truth, though not nearly so close as people might think.”
I’d encourage you to read both my books, and then tell me whether you think I’m proposing a constructive path forward for the evangelical churches or am merely criticizing.
In my original posting I said that the part that I found most interesting was ‘the paragraph that began with …’ So not only did I take into account the sentence following the one I shared, I took into account the entire paragraph.
I did not realize that you think ‘the simplest explanation’ is totally false. I thought you simply thought it was incomplete.
I have questioned the heart behind some posts, but why should I not? All of our hearts deceive us at times and I was encouraged that you were honest enough to admit that at times yours is not always from a pure place. I thought your acknowledging that was helpful – and clarifying. I’m not sure what you find so ‘grating’ about my comment.
And for what it’s worth, I have had conversations with writers on this blog – who I know personally – when I thought there posts were concerning. I would not do that publicly.
I have read most posts on this blog, many of the writers’ tweets, much of the End of Exploring and even heard you speak at my church. Maybe I am wrong – or maybe that’s just the very real challenge of understanding someone’s perspective and the solutions they propose without real relationship.
I simply wanted to know what role you think this blog can play in doing things better. It seems like the answer is ‘read your book.’
I don’t want to get into a big conversation about online etiquette, but I find it very weird that you would be willing to make analyses and judge people’s “hearts” (which you’re right, is sometimes *totally* appropriate to do) in a public forum but not then point to the evidence which is making you do so. My point in pushing back is to say that in questioning those ‘hearts’ you simply haven’t considered all of the evidence. And neither have, by proxy, the people who would claim that I’m simply contentious or have a critical spirit.
Some things that get added to stories change their texture in such a way that they become different stories altogether.
But I’m not even going to grant the premise that this blog has been overwhelmingly critical. Sometimes we’ve been *too* defensive of evangelicals, like when Keith had the temerity to defend Mark Driscoll. So the idea that we’ve been here banging away at everything that’s wrong with evangelicals is simply not true.
I’d also note that I point to my books only because I take positive encouragement so *seriously* that I think it often deserves a much longer form than a blog post, and because they are data that has to be taken into account for the thesis that we are (I am!) simply critical and contrarian.
I’ll leave it there. Thanks for reading, and for the dialogue.
Again – I only mentioned ‘hearts’ because you did. I thought you were affirming the simple explanation of some. I now understand that you were not. I thought you were addressing an issue within yourself, so I thought there was room for a discussion about how to go about this differently. I now understand that that was not what was happening.
Again – I have had those conversations with those I know privately. I have no interest in talking to them before the worldwide web.
I did not say that this blog is overwhelmingly critical at its core. Nor did I say that you’ve been banging away at what’s wrong with ‘evangelicals.’ In fact there are some issues that you could have addressed that you have not. And I appreciate your addressing the possible harm that being unneccesarily defensive of Mark Driscoll could have caused.
I have read enough to know that this is not likely the place where some issues I wish would be unpacked and even denounced would be – and that is fine. To your point, that’s what books are for, I guess – assuming we actually agree, which is probably the bigger issue.
Interesting observations. I think we often forget how much that news media affect our views on life. A pundit once said something to the effect that newspapers existed “to give the news that Jones is dead to men who never knew that Jones was alive.” We hunger for something new, something different, and perhaps lose sight of what is eternal.
My personal belief is that news media takes advantage of the human tendency to look and see what others are doing or what they believe before we make a decision about how we act or how we will believe.
For this claim I give an imaginary anecdote to illustrate: A man in a crowded restaurant with his family suddenly takes off his belt, pulls down his son’s pants, and begins beating his son’s bare bottom with the belt as the child cries out in terror. What is the first thing that most of the patrons would do? While a brave minority of souls would immediately run over and try to protect the child, most people would first look around and see what other people are doing before taking any action.
We are very, very influenced by what other people are doing. This is why homosexual behavior is much more tolerated today than it was 100, 50, or even 30 years ago. It is too simplistic to say that people are more “tolerant” or “liberal” today than they were in those days. Rather, what has happened is that we have been inundated with media portrayals that are sympathetic toward homosexual behaviors and relationships. The more these portrayals are seen and repeated, the more people get the impression that the “times are changing” and that people who think homosexuality is immoral are backwards and intolerant. Its a perfect example of how sociological phenomena can turn into psychological phenomena. If we had no media and relied only on our knowledge of what the people in our own neighborhoods believed for social comparison, homosexual marriage probably would not have become legal in 30+ states so quickly.
It’s not as if people 70 or 80 years ago were less capable of careful reflection than we are, but it is safe to say that relatively few of them were independently coming to the conclusion that homosexuality was okay. Heck, even Freud–an atheist who had no respect for the Bible– thought homosexuality was disordered. He probably unconsciously absorbed his attitudes from the European society in which he lived, one in which Christian attitudes against homosexuality still held sway.
What we are seeing today is not a bunch of people coming to the same conclusion on the issue of homosexuality (or any other issue) independently; rather, as is true with the adoption of most beliefs (including Christianity, atheism, and just about any other philosophy), social comparison plays a part in how people come to adopt certain beliefs or even change them.