A Long Erosion in the Same Direction: Trump, Evangelicals, and the Poison of Conspiracy Theories

Throughout the past five years I have regularly criticized Donald Trump, and while it remains true that I personally dislike him, that personal dislike has been neither the substance nor source of my criticisms. Instead, my attention has focused on what his presidency and actions have meant for, and within, the community of Christians of which I am a member. I am an Evangelical, and these past years—under the explicit influence and impact of Trump—have revealed many things about Evangelicals that reflect poorly on the Gospel we claim to advocate.

I think we’ve made a bad deal.

I have found, speaking as a Christian to Christians, something deeply troubling in the easy alliance between our tribe and this president. This president has been a Bad Moral Example—he speaks and acts in ways in which we would not allow for our children. The ready defense of his many indiscretions makes a mockery of our public witness—we who claim to uphold the importance of integrity in our public officers have, strangely, given this man a pass. In the end, we look like people who are more hungry for power than for justice. We are the inevitable losers in this exchange.

To pour salt on these wounds, in recent years Christians have increasingly turned upon one another when they criticize Trump. Certain members of the Evangelical world are all too ready to question the credentials and faithfulness of anyone who dares to publicly criticize this particular president. The rhetoric of divisiveness (us/them, conservatives/the libs), the sloganeering and name calling (snowflake, libtard, MAGA), and the all-or-nothing thinking (“Trump’s presidency is the last hope for America!”), have combined in such a way that the Good Guys and Bad Guys are now determined not by their faithfulness or clear thinking but by—ironically enough—a form of political correctness. These factors bear a strange fruit indeed when an upright figure like John Piper becomes an enemy of Evangelicalism for daring to criticize Trump.

Nietzsche once ironically wrote of a “long obedience in the same direction.” His words were ironic because, despiser of Christian rules and regulations as he was, he recognized in them a consistent source of beauty and goodness in the world. But now I fear that we Evangelicals stand together at the end of a long erosion in the same direction—that we Christians, who for so long have warned of the dangers of the slippery slope, have become the victims of one; that, having cozied up to a form of power, we have allowed that power to corrupt our witness.

This corruption has reached a peak in the last weeks. Despite all of the alarming characteristics within Evangelicalism that have been exposed by the Trump presidency, none has been more dangerous—or more toxic to our faith and witness—than those that have emerged in the conclusion of his presidency. I speak specifically with regard to the claims of widespread conspiracy and election fraud. These claims, and our belief in these claims, present perhaps the gravest threat of all to our Christian witness. Allow me to explain why.

I should begin by noting that I grew up near Chicago, and Illinois basically wrote the book on election fraud. It is, indeed, a Thing. It happens, and when corruption reaches a certain stage in civic operations, it becomes difficult to accomplish anything without corruption. But I also know that the resources required to commit a fraud at the level required to hoodwink an entire national election beggars belief—organization, secrecy, money, they simply aren’t there. I’ll tell you why I think this way. When I was young and driving at night—especially late at night—I used to listen to a syndicated radio program called Coast to Coast AM. The program was great fun. They regularly interviewed alien abductees, discussed the Kennedy assassination, and talked endlessly about the mysteries of Area 51. The content was absurd, but at night, driving alone in your car, the voice through the radio worked its comforting magic and became strangely believable. One night, the host was interviewing a former CIA agent. The host was asking questions about government conspiracies, about cover-ups and secrets, and in two short sentences the former agent put a pin to the balloon that is basis of many U.S. Government Conspiracy theories. He said, “The people who run the CIA are basically like the Post Office. Do you think they’re organized enough to keep a thing like this secret?” With that, the absurdity of a nationwide, massive coverup became clear as day. It’s impossible. Nobody knows how to keep quiet about these things. Nobody is organized enough. And therefore it is far more likely that the conspiracy theory is just that—an interesting but ultimately flimsy theory.

Here, with the 2020 election, we face a similar set of incredulous claims—and they are in-credulous in that they defy credulity. And yet we are challenged by many prominent Christian figures to believe that there are widespread conspiracies of election fraud. Eric Metaxas is a prominent example of this, and in articulating his convictions he has quite clearly linked support for Trump to support for the Christian faith. About a month ago, participating in an event called “Global Prayer for US Election Integrity,” Metaxas offered the following comments, drawing first on the distinction between the natural and supernatural,

If we’re going through a time of darkness where in the natural we’re not getting the evidence—or whatever—we need, there is no doubt that we must stand firm. It’s like somebody saying, ‘Oh, you don’t have enough evidence to believe in Jesus.’ We have enough evidence in our hearts. We know him and the enemy is trying harder than anything we have seen in our lives to get us to roll over, to forget about it. (video timestamp 11:52)

This is an astonishing train of thought, because in it something of the very structure of Christian belief has been coopted for political purposes. Metaxas is arguing that belief in election fraud is of a kind with belief in the resurrection of Jesus; that faith might mean knowing a thing is true first and then finding the evidence later; that the nature of faith is belief in the absence of evidence; and with all these there is the suggestion that the nature of belief is a kind of inner fervor. This, to my thinking, is the most troubling development of all, the most dangerous yet to our Evangelical witness.

There are many things to address here. In the first place, Christian faith is not a feeling, it is not a fervor, nor is it a kind of conviction in the absence of evidence. One of the most mis-read verses among Christians is Hebrews 11:1, which states “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In my experience, Christian readers undergo a kind of hypnosis when reading these words—they read, “Now faith,” then gloss the middle of the sentence, and hear, “is unseen.” Faith is invisible, it is like the “leap of faith” in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where he doesn’t see the invisible bridge, but must step on it anyway. See? Faith is unseen. But that isn’t what the author of Hebrews says—he says that faith is the assurance, the substance, the material reality of things hoped for. If we look closely we will see that it is, in fact, hope that is unseen. Faith is most definitely seen.

This is, of course, not a new problem. American Christian teaching on faith and the nature of faith in has for too long relied on a misplaced understanding of faith—our theology has been formed more by Stephen Spielberg than by the Bible—and we have allowed ourselves to believe that faith means clinging to things without evidence. This kind of belief—faith as fervor, faith as belief without evidence—characterizes not Christianity, but Mormonism. The book of Mormon documents rivers, cities, and events that don’t’ exist and never happened. No external evidence corroborates the events of the Book of Mormon, and therefore faith for Mormons very much means believing in things without evidence. When Christians ask us to believe in election fraud, even when there is no evidence, then the structure of their ‘faith’ looks more Mormon than Christian.

And yet evidence is at the heart and soul of the Christian faith. On this, 1 John 1:1-3 is explicit, and I will attempt to make it even more explicit by highlighting the words of evidence in bold:  

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life— and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.

The New Testament contains the writings of people who were eyewitnesses to the Christ event. They met him, touched him, heard him, sat with him, watched him die, and met him after he rose from the dead. The whole business of Christianity hangs precipitously on whether or not Jesus rose bodily from the dead, and even the early Christians knew the stakes. Paul himself, writing in 1 Corinthians 15:16-19, makes this explicit,

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

Do you see that? If it didn’t happen, we’re the stupidest people on the planet. Everything—and I mean everything—for Christians hangs on the testimony of these eyewitnesses.

This means that, extending from our belief in the evidence of the resurrection, we are a people who care a great deal about evidence, and along with evidence we care about truth. Our commitment is, in fact, uncompromising. Josef Pieper, in his book Happiness and Contemplation, puts it succinctly: “We want to know the truth at any cost, even if the truth should be frightful.” I want to know God, not my idea of God. I want to know the real Jesus, not my idea of Jesus. And if it were indisputably proved tomorrow that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead—if they produced without doubt the desiccated bones of Jesus Christ—then the nature of our faith is such that everything we Christians believe would be over. It would be a frightful truth, but it would be true; and we who have committed to the truth could do no other.

This is the quite the opposite, of course, to the tone set by many public Christians of late—who appear to be measuring the value of a news source based on its agreement with what I already believe. Upset with Fox News for reporting, well, the news—the news that Trump had lost and that no fraud was forthcoming—many conservatives have turned on Fox! The new measure of a news source’s worthiness is whether or not it agrees with me, and apparently masses of conservative Christians have migrated from Fox News to Newsmax, from Facebook to Parler. It begins to look as if agreement means more than information. We have truly entered into strange waters when a media figure like Metaxas wields more authority among Christians than a seasoned pastor like Piper.

But a further reason why claims like Metaxas’s are so damaging is precisely because as Christians we ask other people to believe things. We are in the business of faith, of belief—that’s arguably our main business in the world. What we do is ask people to believe—things like our testimony, our witness to the resurrection of Jesus, the trustworthiness of our tradition, and our commitment to goodness, and truth, and virtue.

But all this is at risk, because what we ask people to believe are real things. Thing that really happened. The basis of the Christian faith is the belief that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, bodily, on the third day after his crucifixion. We believe this because eleven men and three women saw him that day, and then most of them died violently never abandoning their conviction that Christ was alive. They handed their testimony on to others, who met and experienced the risen Jesus, so that today—two thousand years after the event—we believe in the resurrection of Jesus in the same kind of way that we believe Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the 15th of April, 1865. It happened. People saw it, and told us about it, passing it on.

Christian faith is not a conspiracy theory. The conspiracy depends upon secrets, deception, hidden evidence, and suggestive connections between events. Christian faith depends on openness, clarity, sound reasoning, and an unbroken line of eyewitness testimony. Consider the words of Chuck Colson, one of Nixon’s advisors, and the only one of his associates who was tried and convicted for the events related to the Watergate scandal. Reflecting on these events years later, he wrote the following in his autobiography, Born Again:

I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world—and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.

Colson has nicely outlined the difference between conspiracy-faith, and Christian-faith—the conspiracy cannot sustain itself, it will break, and under pressure the truth will out; Christian faith is ongoing, it doesn’t break, and under pressure its original adherents refused to break. Their testimony was proved true. So should it be with us who claim Christ.

Therefore when we—whose entire eternity is wagered on the belief in the trustworthiness of these events—when we abuse our belief by associating it with baseless conspiracy theories, when we allow our cultural fears to override overwhelming evidence, then this promises immeasurable damage. What is at stake is more than an election, more than our rights, more than America; what is at stake is our ability to ask people to trust us when we tell them that a man rose bodily from the dead and that belief in him is the means of salvation for humans.

In the end, the more incredible the beliefs we demand of people, the more incredulously they will regard our actual beliefs. It was bad enough when society began to associate the term ‘Evangelical’ with Trump; now, because of our tarnishing of belief, they will associate our disposition of faith with Trump’s fraudulent election claims. Inasmuch as Trump will inevitably fail to execute this particular lie, our faith will be tarnished alongside him. That’s why our evangelical association with conspiracy theories is so very dangerous: because if you are ever again going to ask someone to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a condition for their salvation, you need to take a long, hard look in the mirror about what other things you have linked to that belief.

Statues and their Worth

I’ve been asked to say some things about statues, and why, presumably, we should or shouldn’t topple them. In some ways, the answer is quite simple, but, as always, things are more complex than they seem. I’ll attempt to tease out some of that complexity here.

Saddams-statue

The statue of Saddam, being toppled.

It is unquestionably clear that statues of evil people should be toppled. On this, I believe everyone agrees. For example, I clearly remember the conclusion of the Iraq war, when a generation of jubilant Iraqis gathered to topple the statue of Saddam Hussein, symbol of their oppression and despair. I remember the fall of Gaddafi and the destruction of images of his power, whose insane reign terrorized Libya for a generation. I even remember the tumultuous years from 1989-1991, with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the fall of communism, and the undoing of those symbols of Soviet power and civic authority. I’ve seen my share of statues and symbols fall—and each time I agreed with those who wanted it toppled. In each of these cases, a visible symbol of oppression and terror—a manifestation of government control and power—was unmade as a new era came into being. Nobody in Iraq, Libya, or Berlin is longing for a return of these oppressive images. Nobody believes that their removal is an erasure of history.

What we must keep in mind, of course, is that every statue is a form of propaganda. Don’t hear ‘propaganda’ and automatically assume bad things—governments need to disseminate information, and they have a vested interest in forming the opinion of citizenry. World Wars I and II were heavily influenced by government propaganda which directly impacted the morale and hope of average Americans, Britons, and other allies. A modern statue, then, is a form of propaganda—it embodies a civic narrative. Its highly visible presence in a public square declares to all citizenry who view it that “this is good and worthy,” this person deserves to be memorialized by the state. He or she is axiomatic. Be like him or her.

Lincoln-statue-web

My favourite public monument.

The catch, of course, is that just because a government says something doesn’t mean that it’s true. Governments, of course, are not neutral producers of public art. Giant Soviet public sculptures were intended to say something about what it meant to be Russian, about the everlastingness of the United Soviet Socialists Republic. They remain now as ironic testaments to its failure and collapse. In America, it is the donations of individuals and foundations that often generate public art, rather than the impetus of a specific government narrative. Statues, in other words, often reveal their propagandic purpose by means of a money trail. Who paid for it tells us a great deal about why it’s there.Take, for example, the statue of Christopher Columbus in St. Paul, Minnesota, recently toppled by protestors.The protestors see in Columbus a figure of questionable historical value, an oppressor whose image reinforces a wicked American narrative. Ironically, the statue itself was designed by Italian-American immigrants, and represents the acceptance of Italians into the American mainstream. It is, in other words, highly pro-immigrant. The narrative of the protestors, in other words, is at odds with the narrative of why the statue exists.

Jefferson Davis Monument

Jefferson Davis, in Louisiana.

On the other hand, I struggle to imagine why there should be a public statue of Jefferson Davis anywhere—least of all in the South. Davis, president of the Confederacy, was the emblem of the losing side. He, and his policies, were and are anathematic to modern American identity. States may not own slaves. States may not secede from the union (under the guise of States’ rights) so that they may continue to own slaves. To these basic considerations may be added the provenance of a given statue’s creation. The one made for the Jefferson Memorial in Louisiana was, apparently, erected in 1911, for a “whites only” audience, which sang Dixie, and commemorated the 50th anniversary of Davis’s inauguration as president of the Confederacy. Clearly, the provenance of this statue is problematic—not only is it anti-American (as in, anti-Union), its proponents were explicitly anti-Black. This seems to me plenty of warrant to see it removed—which it was, by protestors, in 2017. In this case, to remove the statue is not to remove ‘history,’ per se, but rather the removal of bad history. Those who argue that removing statues is to erase history might too quickly forget that the statues themselves have a history.

Assuming, then, that we all agree statues of evil people—public symbols of oppression—should be removed, what are we to do with the statues of figures like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Cecil Rhodes, and Theodore Roosevelt? It would seem to be a simple solution (too simple, I am afraid), to address each statue in a case-by-case basis. We need to know who the person was, what he or she did, who built the statue and when, and, very importantly, who paid for it. Once we’ve gathered the relevant information, we can make an educated decision on the value of a given civic statue and its ongoing function as public propaganda.

Head Removed From Christopher Columbus Statue In North End Of Boston

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 10: A statue depicting Christopher Columbus is seen with its head removed at Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park on June 10, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. The statue was beheaded overnight and is scheduled to be removed by the City of Boston. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

But as I said, this solution might be too simple. Peter Drucker in his classic book The Effective Executive, writes about recognizing the difference between ad hoc decisions and generic decisions. Ad hoc decisions are those that are truly case by case, with no overarching implications, while generic decisions have to rely on an underlying principle or rule. A serious danger in executive decision making is the fact that “the incomplete explanation is often more dangerous than the totally wrong explanation.” In the case of statues, the individual character of the figure in question may be evaluated on a case-by-case basis; the real, underlying problem is one of a contest between civic narratives.

Let me try to make this clear: when it comes to statues, beneath the question of the individual who is represented there is a question of what narrative he represents. One narrative, the traditional one, regards these individuals as valuable, significant, and historically important. This is often why statues are defended on the grounds of ‘preserving history.’ The other narrative regards these figures as oppressors, wicked emblems of an ongoing plight. This, in turn, is why they consider them emblems of what is sometimes called ‘systemic racism.’ The conflicting narratives in turn produce conflicting accounts of morality. What is ‘good’ within one narrative may be ‘evil’ from within the new narrative. From one perspective, therefore, it is not at all clear that George Washington is as evil as Hitler, or that Christopher Columbus is as evil as Gaddafi. In brief, depending on our operative narrative, we likely don’t agree on what qualifies as ‘evil.’

washington-statue--730x487

A concatenation of messages make it difficult to discern which narrative to follow.

The removal of the George Washington statue in Portland a few weeks ago makes this question of civic narrative explicit. Images of the statue, hurled to the ground, clearly display the spray-painted numbers 1619. If you don’t know, the “1619 Project” was a series produced by the New York Times which attempted to re-tell the narrative of American history with specific reference to the role of slavery in its foundation (1619 is the first year slaves arrived in Virginia). The narrative implications are fairly clear: to continue to lionize a figure like Washington is to perpetuate a civic narrative that is emblematic of an ideology of oppression. The problem isn’t Washington, it’s the American civic narrative itself. From within this new narrative, figures like Washington, Jefferson, and even U.S. Grant are objectively bad guys. If we accept this argument fully then it follows that they are as bad as the Nazis and the Communists—worthy of erasure from the historical record. It is important to hear that behind the argument that these statues represent “systemic racism” lies a counter-narrative to American identity, and that behind the argument to “protect history” lies a defense of the traditional civic narrative. What is really at stake is a question of what it means to be American.

Here things get really complex. Governments have the right to propagate narratives of identity, to lionize certain figures and to minimize others. States where the citizenry have the power to select these figures have no less narrative power. At the same time, in most modern states citizenry have the right to critique those narratives. That is, in fact, the very business of history. Where those figures show ugliness (e.g., Washington’s slave ownership, Grant’s alcoholism), we should mark that ugliness appropriately. But we must also weigh that ugliness against the person’s historic value, civic value, and in light of his or her own time. It is exceptionally ironic when a given critique criticizes the power that allows them to critique. In other words, it is absurd for Americans to utilize the American tradition which was founded by Washington, Jefferson, and other Enlightenment thinkers—a tradition that enshrined free speech and public assembly in its constitution—to attempt to undo the legacy of the very figures who guaranteed those rights. To describe this as short-sighted would be generous.

Profanation of Notre Dame in the French Revolution

The desecration of Notre Dame

Many of the people toppling statues today, however, see themselves as revolutionaries, and it is worth remembering that revolutions feasts on symbols—they can gather, unite, and typify the message of the revolutionary. But revolutions rarely generate their own symbols—they leech, parasitically, power from existing symbols. They piggyback on existing power, attempting to hijack its prominence for their own message. Adherents to the French Revolution attempted to replace the church with the “cult of reason.” For this, they desecrated Notre Dame, and in its place elevated a local prostitute now dressed in the robes of reason. The new symbol sought to borrow from the significance and power of the old, while at the same time denigrating it.

Complicating this situation, mobs and revolutions thrive on black and white distinctions. We are all good while our enemies are all bad. Everything we want is right, while everything our enemies want is wrong. Our heroes are perfect, while the heroes of our opponents are literally Hitler. This absolutist approach to good and evil fuels situations like cancel culture, where a given public individual, found guilty of a thought-crime, finds himself or herself ‘cancelled’—Kevin Spacey, J.K. Rowling, Bill Cosby, etc. Their shows and books are removed because of the character flaws (real or perceived) in the person. It is, in its own way, another form of statue removal. Of course, the standards of judgment are erratic, and grace is rare. Martin Luther King Jr. keeps his statues despite being, in his private moral life, a pretty terrible person. His ‘goods’ are weighed against his ‘bads’ and he is allowed to remain. In brief, his goods match whatever is ‘good’ in the new narrative. No such evaluation—or grace—is extended to a George Washington.

MLK-Memorial-front-631

But what is the ‘new narrative’ that powers these revolutionary impulses? What is to replace the traditional narrative? For some, there is no narrative but anarchy. A deep anger is manifesting itself in a hatred of all traditional sources of authority and power. At other times, the narrative looks a great deal like Marxism. To be clear, Marxism here means a way of interpreting the data of the world by means of certain ready-made categories. The Bourgeoisie against the Proletariat, the haves against the have-nots, the privileged against the oppressed. The problem isn’t in identifying disparity and saying that it exists and needs to be addressed. The problem, rather, is in the way that the disparity reduces complexity to simplicity. Individual cases don’t need to be addressed; if they fit the class, they are guilty by association. In turn—and this is a cruel feature of Marxist societies—a sense of shared victimhood provides identity for the oppressed class. (This is a process called ‘othering.’ I write about it more here.)

To make these matters worse, the Marxist narrative—in every place where it has been tried in the 20th century—has revealed a highly utilitarian approach to the truth. Words are tools to achieve ends, and promises are irrelevant—only the revolution matters. Action matters! Policy can be adjusted to match the truth later. Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, Castro—each was a virtual case study in prevarication. P.D. Ouspensky, who witnessed the Russian Revolution of 1917, wrote of the Bolsheviks and their empty promises of peace. He diagnosed the hollowness of their words as follows: “They had no intention of meeting their promissory notes, therefore they could issue as many of them as they liked. This was their chief disadvantage and chief strength.” The revolutionary who does not care about the truth can say what he likes—it is the ends that matter, and only the ends that matter.

So, where does this leave us? Hopefully with one set of actions, and one real debate. The actions are to evaluate each statue by its own merits. This will take patience, investigation, a real commitment to history, and a commitment to honesty on both sides. If it can be shown that a statue was raised for wicked purposes, to reinforce bad narratives (i.e., to reinforce Jim Crow laws in the south), it seems to me that the statue should be removed. (And, for what it’s worth, I’d like to see cities put forth public hearings on a given statue, and then put it to the vote. That’s the most American response there is.)

And yet the deeper and more important debate is to query what is to happen to the tradition of the West. Will it survive, warts and all, with a fresh commitment to its core values of liberty and justice? Or will it be toppled by a mob that want something far more dangerous and destructive—either unbridled and undisciplined power, or an ideology inimical to the foundation of Western freedom. The choice, quite literally, is ours.

On Quoting Movies

I’ve just completed a series of daily Facebook posts—I wasn’t nominated, and I didn’t nominate anyone. In fact, I made up my own thing. Each day I featured a movie I quote all the time. I would describe the movie, talk about the line I most often quote, and then tag a friend I’d most like to watch the movie with. It was a surprisingly pleasant exercise. I didn’t know how far I would go, or if I would run out of people to watch movies with. In the end it became a kind of game, pairing up ideal people into ideal movie groups.

12_Bill and Ted's Excellent AdventureTo begin, I listed four or five movies that I knew I quoted all the time, listing their lines as well (Highlander “There can be only one”; Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, “Excellent!”). Then, as the days went on, whenever I’d find myself quoting a movie with my wife, I’d jot it down on the list. I ended up posting some nineteen films. (I could have done a few more, but I ended on my birthday with my favourite film of all, Willow.)

The exercise prompted some reflective thinking, of course. Is there something unique about this set of movies that they are stuck in my head? Can I learn anything from looking at the data? It turns out, I could.

05_Nacho LibreI posted 19 times, but there were actually 23 movies on the list. Curious about relations between the films, I made a chart, documented their release dates, the ratio of comedy to dramas, and noted any repeat figures in the movies. What did I find? The movies I quote most often range in date from 1980 (The Empire Strikes Back) to 2006 (Nacho Libre). An overwhelming majority of the movies fall between 1984 and 1993 (78%), with half of them falling between 1984 and 1989. Almost 80% of the movies I quote most often are comedies. Four of the movies feature Christopher Guest, three of them Val Kilmer, while two each featured Mike Myers and Harrison Ford respectively.

There are a few observations to make about this data. First of all, as much as movie quotes play a significant role in my daily discourse, the truth of the matter is that I used to quote movies a lot more. I distinctly remember the feeling when I was learning Greek back in university that the space in my brain that was previously dedicated to movie quotes was being repurposed for Greek vocabulary. That’s of interest because, of course, I graduated in 2002, roughly coinciding with the upper limit of my movie quotes date.

16_The GooniesIt is also interesting to note just how many of the films are nestled in that 1984-1989 spot. I was only aged 4-9 during those years, so I certainly didn’t see these films in the theater (excepting Willow, the first movie I saw in theater). Instead, I watched these all later, on home video—on VHS, to be exact. The idea of VHS these days is a moniker for nostalgia, but the truth of the matter is that it points to a kind of shared experience in my generation. One of the things we did was get pizza, put in a VHS, and watch movies together—often the same movies again and again. Highlander, Wayne’s World, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were everyday fare for me and my friends. It’s what we had at hand to do together. And, just to be explicit, we had no YouTube, no Netflix, no internet even. It was just you, your mates, the TV, and maybe some one player video games.

But here’s where the quoting comes into play—it seems to me that, for us, quoting a movie was a way to extend the pleasure of the viewing experience. We had all seen a thing together, and now we could re-enter that thing, make one another laugh, use it to interpret experience afresh. It touched base with the experience we’d shared, reaffirming our friendship in the process. To guffaw at So I Married an Axe Murderer and then to spend the rest of the day talking in Mike Myers’s exaggerated Glaswegian accent was not just funny, it was a kind of community reiteration.

03_HighlanderBut it extended beyond your immediate friends. When you discovered another person who had seen and loved the same movie, quoting the film was an easy doorway into community. We know the same things, have laughed at the same things, have loved the same characters. Quoting movies foreshortened the distance to new relationships.

Of course, this foreshortening process is crucially limited to people who have seen and remembered the same movies I have seen. Adults in my generation (whatever the heck we are—Xennials, The Oregon Trail Generation, I dunno) have recourse to a similar set of influences. But it makes me wonder what the set of shared experiences for later generations will be? YouTube rewinds? Memes? Things move so quickly there’s hardly time for stable, repeat viewing of content in the same room with your mates. In the absence of these shared experiences, what aspects of collective memory will bring people together?

14_The Emperor's New GrooveIt’s interesting to me that I don’t quote many, or really any, movies after 2006. On the one hand, the world had changed. On the other hand, I had grown up. I no longer had time to lay about watching movies with my mates at all hours, eating cold Little Caesar’s pizza and lukewarm Orange Crush. The network of people who activated movie quotes was gone. At the same time, by 2006 I was married. The only person I was regularly watching movies with was my wife. Fortunately for me, she appreciates—and dishes out—a great and well-timed movie quote.

But of course, sometime after we got married we stopped adding new quotes to our relational vocabulary, hence the tapering off at 2006. Why would this be the case? On the one hand, we were busy with jobs, school, and life. I was getting my master’s degree and Liesel was working full time. Then I was a full-time pastor and Liesel was a young mom. Kid’s movies, while occasionally entertaining, are not typically known for their quotable value. One kid became two, then three, and finally four. The last eleven years of our lives have been consumed with work, school, and early parenting. We’ve not had time to watch, and re-watch, and quote new films together.

15_Waiting for GuffmanAll the same, I’m still quoting movies—it’s just that I’m most often quoting this set of 23 movies. And in the context of marriage these quotes serve an important role. Like with my friendships in childhood, they have the power to reaffirm shared experience with my wife. It’s like saying, “Hey, remember this thing that we both laughed at?” Quoting Inigo Montoya during an argument is a great way to deescalate a frustrating conversation (“You keep using that h’word. I do not think it means what you think it means”). Dropping a Corky St. Clair reference can extend empathy and humor at the same time (“Thatssss not a good thing”). Above all else, movies are quoted in my family to spin the plate of collective memory, to reassert our own shared experience, to keep alive—and enliven—the ongoing conversation.

All that to say, I’ve learned something interesting about myself during this quarantine experience. It’s that I love movies (I knew that already), but I miss watching them with my friends. It’s also renewed my gratitude for a wife who is a friend with whom I can watch, and quote, silly movies.

Extraversion, Covid-19, and Spirituality

Bonhoeffer_closeupIn the midst of our present global scenario—of social distancing, lockdowns, and quarantines, of distance learning, work from home, and digital churches—a phrase from Bonhoeffer’s Life Together keeps coming to mind: “Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.”

Bonhoeffer’s meaning is simple enough. We regularly make use of either solitude or groups to hide our insecurities—whether those insecurities are the stillness of being alone or the energy of being with others. Whole people need both. The Church needs both.

Drifting prominently across my news feed these past weeks have been the increasingly urgent concerns of my more extraverted friends. Typically, it is the introverts in my life who post plaintive image macros about how much they’d rather be inside, alone, and about how much they relish cancelled plans. But a notable reversal sees my extraverted friends panicking that they have to stay inside. Desperate for connection, they’ve jacked up their online presence: they’re posting photos and videos of themselves doing things (any number of things), they’re standing in their doorways and shouting to their neighbours, and they clarify with some urgency that “social distancing” isn’t human, or humane, that we’re not made for this, and then follow up their concerns with a correction: “Social distancing isn’t right—it’s physical distancing that matters!”

cancelled plans macro

Go ahead and google it. “Introvert memes.” They’re a dime a dozen.

In these moments I hear Bonhoeffer in the background: “Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community.” With this in mind, I think there are two things I want to speak into this situation. One is to the church generally, the other is to clergy.

To the Church: Our present situation warrants serious reflection on Bonhoeffer’s warning. In particular, it seems to me that certain extraverted church members have collapsed being social into being the Church, while certain introverted church members have collapsed being alone into being spiritual. No doubt the Church is a social entity; no doubt significant spiritual activity happens in solitude. It is also beyond doubt that neither tells the whole human story. Today, however, I want to focus on the distortion of my extraverted friends.

jungIn case you’re not familiar with the terms, ‘extraverted’ and ‘introverted’ are personality types devised by Carl Jung, based on his broad observations of a multitude of clients. Some of them, he came to see, were recharged by being with people, while others, he perceived, were recharged by being alone. I’ve put ‘recharged’ in italics both times because it’s the key phrase here—extraversion and introversion are measurements of energy, not social skill, as is commonly thought (there are socially incompetent extraverts and socially expert introverts).

See, my extraverted friends, I used to be one of you. I used to be addicted to being with people, around people, and they gave me immense energy and I was energized and enlivened by being among you. But something happened during the ten years I was a pastor. People went from energizing, to utterly draining. I still loved my congregation, and still used a lot of energy while in groups, but it would take me, on average, about double the time in solitude to recover from any meeting I had. I suddenly needed lots of time alone. I’ve now come to terms with the fact that I’m an introvert.

I tell this story is because I want you to know that I’m not one of those smug introverts who, confident in the superiority of being alone over being in groups, is taking advantage of your present confinement to tell you how bad you are and to dish out a little of your own medicine. All the same, the person who cannot be alone should beware community. What is Bonhoeffer teaching us right now? Many of you are revealing that you cannot be alone, and I suspect that this incapacity to be alone is impacting how we think about spirituality. More to the point, I fear that we’ve collapsed the complexity of communal spirituality into the simplicity of energized gatherings. We get together, we chat and visit, we sing and listen to a sermon, and we go home feeling good about ourselves, but the ‘good feeling’ may or may not be spiritual in origin. It might just be that a group of extraverts have been recharged by being together and doing extraverted things. Doing ‘churchy’ things is no guarantee of spiritual benefit. Neither, for that matter, is feeling ‘churchy’ feelings.

Babylon Bee Introverts

The Babylon Bee even posted about the joys of introverts during the quarantine.

To put this another way, I fear that a lot of our spiritual practice may be dominated by extraverted dispositions. Extraverted pastors, cultivating extraverted churches, where extraverted people engage in extraverted forms of spirituality. And I see evidence of this domination in our ecclesial response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Why should not being able to meet, temporarily, result in such panic for so many of the people I see? Why should staying home for two weeks be so deeply frightening? Why is it that we must immediately set up a host of Zoom meetings to keep our Churches meeting, meeting, and meeting?

Christmas a mess

Even this little one can’t enjoy Christmas.

Face it—we’re really bad at being alone. We’re even worse at being still. We fill and populate our minds and our time with noise and things so that we can hold the stillness at bay. I feel this general noisiness especially around Christmastime. For years now I’ve felt that there was something deeply wrong with how we approach Christmas. Busy, busy, busy! Buying, cooking, cleaning, wrapping, preparing, getting Christmas cards together, gathering the last of the shopping—and then, finally, we all take one day off to rest, Christmas Day. But by the time we get there we’re so knackered from preparing for a day off, that that day itself is nearly ruined.

The reason this seems so odd to me is because even when I was growing up, the world was much better at taking a weekly Sabbath. This wasn’t that long ago, but on Sundays all the shops were closed. Need to shop? Do it another day. Need groceries? Get them another day. Need to look at cars? Do it next Saturday. Need to make a business call? Wait till Monday. When the world was in the habit of regular retreat from the busyness of life, Christmas was a bonus sabbath in a year of Sabbaths. Nowadays, it’s the only one we take—and we’re so busy we ruin it.

The point, my friends, is that we have been given a gift—the gift of solitude, of extended Sabbath. Why are we trying to ruin it with our excessive busyness? Why are we struggling to remember the Sabbath Day, and its joy of retreat from the normative busyness of life? Now is the time to be still, to reflect on being alone, and to really learn what it means to be the Church in solitude—to separate our spirituality from our extraversion. That’s where the clergy come in.

Empty churches

Pastor Troy Dobbs at Grace Church Eden Prairie in Minnesota on Sunday.
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

To Clergy: One of the most difficult aspects of pastoral ministry, I believe, is the unfair ratio of visible to invisible work, of tangible to intangible objectives. What I mean is that pastors typically get credit for their time for those things that appear to the church. For a small to mid-size church, that means an hour’s visible work on Sunday morning, maybe two if you teach Sunday School. People look at this visible work and conclude that you’ve got it easy. They say things like, “Well, you’ve done your hour’s work for the week! I wish I could get paid to do so little. Ha ha ha.” (You find you never laugh with them.) Members can ask, “So, what is it you do all week?” Their intonation makes it clear that they don’t think you do very much at all. The average time required for sermon prep, I understand, is between 8-20 hours per week. But you don’t get credit for that time, because it’s invisible. You don’t get credit for visiting sick families, teaching a weekly bible study, answering your phone, reading spiritually to enrich your own faith, praying for your congregation, or attending a board meeting. Pastoral ministry is dominated by the intangibles, and if we’re not careful this can be deeply frustrating.

Comic_You're not busy

The first reason this is frustrating is because clergy can fall into this visibility trap and come to believe that their chief value is in their visible work. This involves a severe flattening of the pastoral office—prayer, solitude, personal spiritual development; care, concern, support; vision, planning, implementation, management—each of these categories is a significant part of the clerical office. They are also invisible. The pastor who puts all of his eggs into the basket of visible actions will distort the office and enervate the life of the church. It’s like a gardener who spends more time posing for promotional pictures than tending to the trees. The pictures may look great, but the invisible work has to go on.

dont-skip-leg-day-bro-24045203-1jw8jmjBut we can compound the problem further with a second reason. Let’s imagine you’re a pastor who is extraverted, who gets a charge from being with your people. Suddenly, not only has the visible portion of your work been taken away from you, but you are also prohibited from connecting with the people who give you life. If you’ve only focused on extraverted spirituality, to the neglect of introverted spirituality, then there’s a good chance you’ve been skipping leg day in your spiritual workouts. And Covid-19 has commanded you to lift a piano with your legs.

To tie this all together, I suspect that, suddenly, a lot of the pastors in the world find themselves feeling the need to justify their existence. Their visible work is removed from them, and now they have to find a new and creative way to prove their value. It is all too easy in the pastoral office to allow identity to be intertwined with visible busyness, and visible busyness militates against stillness and solitude. Finding oneself in a place of hollow busyness, many pastors attempt to justify their busyness as spirituality. But the more activist we are in ministry, the less our contemplative muscles get worked. We need both. But for some pastors who are now forced to be alone and still it may amount to a crisis of identity, if not of faith.

But pastoring is so much more than public teaching, and there’s no time like now to show people what that looks like. I’ve got four suggestions:

1) Let the big churches be the big churches. There are a whole ton of great preaching pastors out there who are better than you, more professional than you, and who already know how to use the technology better than you. Why not just outsource your teaching for this season? Send your people out on ‘visitation’ to see how the big dogs do their digital ministry. Then, instead of you teaching, you can hold a discussion group for after the teaching. Go ahead and have your Zoom meeting, but instead of being the one talking, you get to do the listening and hear about what other people learned in their digital churches this week.

2) Focus on your people. As clergy, your job has always been your people. That hasn’t changed; the only thing that’s changed is the ability to gather in a big group. So this is as great a time as any to get out the phone list and call every single parishioner on it. Write down a few key questions ahead of time. Do you have everything you need? How are you holding up? How’s your spirit? How can I pray for you? If your people don’t like the phone, send them a chat or text. Your care for your people will be evident more in your connections than in your digital sermons.

3) Make the most of your time. What a time you have to plan for the future! To pray, reflect, and read, to listen to God and attempt to hear what He wants for the future of your congregation. This is the best of times to write out some sermon outlines, or plan some Sunday School lessons, or just to take a break. Put your feet up and listen to some music, or spend time in your garden, or prepare a feast and eat it, or play games with your family. Now is the time to remember that busyness is not spirituality. Live it, and then you’ll be able to teach it better.

4) Be still and alone. The best of all is time to simply be still. Recently I’ve read through Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—a book that argues that the training of attention is essential to the achievement of happiness. Csikszentmihalyi writes, that “unless one learns to tolerate and even enjoy being alone, it is very difficult to accomplish any task that requires undivided attention.” This is your chance, O clergy and parishioners, to develop your attention, to piggyback on enforced solitude as an opportunity for personal development. Take the time! Stop being so busy! And… just rest.

Some Really Terrible Coronavirus Sermon Illustrations

It’s Saturday night, and all over the world pastors are scrambling to put the final touches on their sermons this week. This week is unique, of course, since the spread of the Covid-19 virus has caused many churches to move, for the first time, to fully digital services.

messy-desk-23983More important than getting the tech right—which is a nightmare in itself!—is coming up with some killer eleventh-hour sermon applications from the coronavirus situation. After all, what preacher is worth his or her salt who cannot monopolize on a situation like this, to speak rich and profound spiritual meaning into a global situation by means of thin theology and vague reference points? That’s why I’m here to help. I’ve come up with the following awful terrible fantastic sermon illustrations, so you don’t have to.

“Pastor, tell me what it all means?!”

Pastor, your people are hungry for meaning. Are you going to give it to them, or not? In what is really the easiest of all sermon illustrations here you get to fill in the blank with whatever it is you (or your members) don’t like. “Do you want to know what this coronavirus means? I’ll tell you what it means. It’s God’s judgment against _______.” See that blank, there? You can put in whatever you want! Abortion, the Gays, NAFTA, Global Warming, Obama, the Kardashians. The possibilities are endless, so get creative!

Another easy sermon point is to utilize the play on words between coronavirus and corona beer. This one has potential because nobody, as far as I can tell, has noticed the similarities yet. It means we’ve got a great opportunity to take up the cause of Teetotalism again, and to get our all-too alcohol-sodden members to stop drinking the devil’s juice. “The virus is here because you’ve been drinking! Stop drinking, and the virus will go away!”

corona beer

Another way to force interpret meaning from the epidemic is to start with some scripture. This model takes a little more thought, but can be really useful. Here, you’ve got to find a passage with a thin relationship to global events, then twist relate it so that it aligns perfectly with what’s going on. I’ll give you some examples.

Consider a passage like Leviticus 14:36 “Then the priest shall command that they empty the house before the priest goes to examine the disease, lest all that is in the house be declared unclean. And afterward the priest shall go in to see the house.” See, there were rules in the Old Testament about how to approach a plague-filled house (plague = coronavirus). The quarantine, in other words, is calling people everywhere to seek priestly purity. The purpose of this time is to make everyone purify themselves! The plague is God telling your members to get their houses in order.

Another great example is Numbers 32:13, which says that “And the LORD’s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the LORD was gone.” Here, the Israelites are forced to wander in the desert until an entire generation has passed away. Since the coronavirus is most lethal for the elderly, clearly this is God’s judgment on that generation! The Israelites sinned because they were faithless upon entering the land, and you can pick whatever sins you want to lay at the feet of today’s elderly—the housing crash, the 60s, Joe Biden—as before, the list is only limited by your imagination!

A Final Illustration: Toilet Paper and Praise

No image has been more pervasive, or generated more outrage, than that of people hoarding toilet paper. The wise pastor will harness the outrage, piggy-backing on it to give punch to his sermon illustration. I’ll tell you how to do it (and I’ll also tell you that it’s so good I wish I was preaching tomorrow!) Here’s how to do it: you’ve got to link the odiousness of hoarding toilet paper to the odiousness of hoarding praise from God! See the link?! People are hoarding toilet paper, and we all think they’re horrible; but how much more horrible are we when we hoard what belongs to God—the praise He is due! Don’t you see, sinner, that you are as awful in God’s eyes for hoarding praise as those people at Costco are for hoarding all the toilet roll? Repent, now, or the virus will get you!

toilet paper hoarding

I hope these illustrations are helpful to all the pastors preparing sermons tonight. They’re guaranteed to make your people feel good about themselves, to make people you don’t like feel guilty, and above all to make you feel good about yourself. Oh, and one last thing—remember that when people groan at your sermons it’s a sign that you’ve really hit home.