The Desperate Necessity for ‘Common Ground’

“There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground.” This was the headline for a recent article in Time magazine, penned by novelist and professor Tayari Jones (Emory). In her article Jones tells a compelling story about her upbringing. Her parents were activists, “veterans of the civil rights movement,” and under their tutelage she also learned to stand up for what she believed was right. On one occasion, riding in the back of a car for a zoo trip, she was astonished to discover that the driver was getting gas from Gulf, a company complicit in financing Apartheid. Young Tayari got out of the car and refused to ride further. She missed out on the zoo that day, but when her father came to collect her he was proud of her choice.

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Jones uses her story as a launching pad to critique the desire for ‘common ground.’ She writes,

I find myself annoyed by the hand-wringing about how we need to find common ground. People ask how might we “meet in the middle,” as though this represents a safe, neutral and civilized space. This American fetishization of the moral middle is a misguided and dangerous cultural impulse.

Where was the ‘middle,’ she asks, with regard to American slavery? Where is the ‘middle’ with regard to Japanese internment during WWII? “What is halfway,” she queries, “between moral and immoral?” (The implied answer is ‘no place.’)

To be fair, I think Jones is right to critique the rhetoric of platitudes. There are times when appeals for ‘common ground’ are, as she suggests, rooted in “conflict avoidance and denial.” There are times when the language of ‘good people on both sides’ is a cheat, a deception, a statement intended to diffuse the perception of discomfort. In this I am reminded that when eight clergymen approached Martin Luther King Jr. and critiqued his methods of nonviolent resistance, he responded in his famous letter from the jail in Birmingham, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Those clergyman didn’t want King to delay for the sake of compromise, they wanted him to delay because they were uncomfortable. They advocated for a kind of ‘common ground’ in order to ease their own discomfort.

mlk jr

And yet the blanket dismissal of compromise which Jones’s piece advocates is deeply troubling. Above all else, in the rejection of compromise there is a presumption that one side is completely right, while the other side is completely wrong. This might make sense when fighting Nazis in Germany, and it might have validity when defending yourself from an advancing army of cannibals, but things in real life are rarely so clear-cut. Furthermore, an appeal to no-compromise sounds compelling, and can effectively galvanize a base, but what if you find yourself on the outside of that base? It’s one thing to claim no compromise, as Jones does, with respect to issues of immigration, Black America, and White Nationalism, but what about no compromise on the part of abortion, or gender identity, or the dissolution of the family? Aren’t these also issues that display a spectrum of ‘moral and immoral’? Am I to reject compromise with Jones, or any other disputant, when a moral question is in play?

But there are deeper problems still. What has happened in the past when we have rejected compromise? Consider the following:

There are only two possibilities in Germany; do not imagine that the people will forever go with the middle party, the party of compromises; one day it will turn to those who have most consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it. And that party is either the Left: and then God help us! for it will lead us to complete destruction – to Bolshevism, or else it is a party of the Right which at the last, when the people is in utter despair, when it has lost all its spirit and has no longer any faith in anything, is determined for its part ruthlessly to seize the reins of power – that is the beginning of resistance of which I spoke a few minutes ago. Here, too, there can be no compromise – there are only two possibilities: either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew. (Adolf Hitler, 1922, emphasis added)

Here lies the real danger, to which Jones (unwittingly) points but to which both sides of the ideological debate are prone: the logic of Hitler applies to both sides of the ideological spectrum. And the grim truth is that if I determine you to be irredeemable—a misfit, a deplorable, recalcitrant, unwilling to change—then if I will not compromise with you I must do other things to you. In short, I open a door to the possibility of removing you from the equation. A refusal to compromise is the proto-rhetoric to murder. And if we aren’t planning to murder one another, then some form of compromise is going to be in order.

Adolf Hitler holding a speech

What is compromise? I can think of two definitions. First, compromise is the art of living within a complexity of differences. Every marriage is built on compromise. Two agents inhabit the same space but with different wills and desires. She wants to watch one film, he wants to watch another. Without compromise, how do you resolve the situation? Second, compromise is the art of disagreeing with someone without killing them. Sometimes a compromise is an agreement to disagree. Sometimes compromise means both of us giving up something we like for the sake of living in relative peace. And it’s worth noting that some compromises work, while others don’t. For example, the American government is founded on a “Great Compromise” which created our two houses of government (bridging the competing factors of states-rights and population). This compromise has been working successfully for hundreds of years. In the same vein, the Mason-Dixon line was a compromise with regard to the spread of slavery in early America—this was a compromise that failed, catastrophically.

For certain, it is not always the case that failed compromise ends in the murder of your disputant—some failed compromises end in divorce, or loss, or never speaking to one another again. But when we’re speaking of a political entity—such as a state—and when we are advocating through our rhetoric for a set of members in that state to be regarded as fundamentally immoral and irredeemable, then we are sidling up to a very dangerous line. Are there times when it is the right thing to do away with an ideological bloc? Certainly. Can we kill Nazis with impunity? Sometimes. Have we found a better way, in the past 2000 years, of changing someone’s mind than violence? The answer is uncertain—gulags and re-education camps are some of the 20th century’s greatest horrors. The only way, it seems, of changing someone’s mind without violence is, well, compromise. Finding common ground, highlighting the good ‘on the other side,’ and patiently, sometimes painfully, waiting while working for change. The alternative is to murder them.

Naked and Unashamed–“Idiot Lights”

Naked and Unashamed CoverIf you didn’t know, a few months back I published (along with Jerry and Claudia Root) a book on marriage, called Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Paraclete Press). I’m immensely glad the book is in print, and immensely honored to have worked on it with Jerry and Claudia, who married Liesel and I almost fifteen years ago now. I honestly can’t wait for people to read it and (I trust!) be blessed by what’s in it.

Jerry and Claudia have performed premarital counseling for over 1500 couples over the past 40 years, and the outline of their material was chock-full of wisdom that we felt more couples needed in hand. In the years that I was a pastor, I had used the same material when counseling couples for marriage, as well as in encouraging the marriages in my churches. Wonderfully, our experience comes together in the book and forms something fresh. While originally the material in hand was targeted specifically for couples in preparation for marriage, in Naked and Unashamed we’ve expanded it so that it can be an encouragement for marriages of all stripes—a refresher course, if you will.

Over the next few months I’ll be sharing a few extracts from the book on this blog. Read! Be encouraged! Be a little challenged! And if you feel like you want more, you can find copies in bookstores, on Amazon.com, and on the Paraclete Press website. (Also, if you are interested in a review copy, send me a note with your email address and I’ll pass your information on to the publisher!)

“Idiot Lights”
Excerpted from, Naked and Unashamed: A Guide to the Necessary Work of Christian Marriage (Chapter 1)

In the Proverbs it states that “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (27:17). This is not a description of one smooth object gently sliding across another, but a process of one rough edge grating against another. The pressure of persons in close contact is the sharpening process by which we are made keen for use—by which our innermost persons are refined and made beautiful.

Conflict, then, does not mean you are a failure. When you own and operate a car, changing the oil every 3000 miles will make your car last for a long time. On many models, if the oil is not changed after a certain period of time, a light will go off on the dashboard—we call this an idiot light. When the light goes off, it doesn’t mean that the car’s owner is an idiot, merely that he or she is on the threshold of becoming one. Ignore the light, and in time you will become an idiot. Similarly, conflict in marriage simply identifies areas that require maintenance. Conflict doesn’t mean you are an idiot—but ignore the conflict, or refuse to attend to the work it asks of you, and in time you will become one.

Good marriages, you see, are never problem-free marriages; instead, a good marriage is one where the partners watch for the warning signals and grow by attending to them. A good marriage is not one where each partner has it all together, perfectly sorted, but one where they are secure enough in God’s love for them, and their growing love for one another, that they are not afraid to admit the limits of their capacities. Good marriages create space to be novices, to be awkward, to admit that none of us has very much life skill, that no one is ever ready for marriage, or children, or grows up without regrets. When a couple can operate through their conflicts from the perspective of that kind of security, then the result is always a high and steady growth curve.

We see this again in the words of Robert Browning’s poem, Rabbi ben Ezra, the opening line of which romantically invites the listener to “Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be.” Lines 31-32 have the following phrase, “Then welcome each rebuff/that turns earth’s smoothness rough.” It is easy to make judgments of simplicity—things often appear smooth. But further insight, greater perception, often challenge our initial perceptions. A cue ball to the eye and hand is perfectly smooth. Under a microscope, however, it appears pitted and mountainous. The couple that would take advantage of the opportunity offered by conflict in marriage will permit the new information brought by their spouse to alter their initial perception. Things which on one view appeared smooth on a further view become textured. Additionally, a field before being tilled is hard and smooth, but the rebuff of the spade turns its smoothness rough, preparing the soil for fresh fruitfulness. In the same way, the idiot lights of conflict, viewed properly, become opportunities for a harvest of good.

The good news, of course, is that you are never expected to resolve all of these difficulties on your own. When the idiot light signals in your marriage, seek help as soon as the need arises. Wiser people than you have covered this ground before you; call them to your aid. Consult books. Visit counselors, church groups, pastors, seminars, and conferences. Each of these is a resource—like tools and equipment in your gardening shed—that are available to help you grow, as well as heal, your marriage. Do this quickly because unchecked difficulties will compound over time. To humbly seek help is itself the process of developing life skill, and the best thing the unskilled can do is to surround themselves with wise counselors until they themselves have grown and matured in wisdom. The practice of regularly investing time and energy into this work is precisely the necessary work of your marriage.

Tradition to Blame: A Further Look at Progressive Theology

When I wrote last week about Love and Relationship I had no real intention to follow up that post. There were (and still are) things to say about defining terms like “progressive theology,” and there’s something to say about progressive revelation. But this week I encountered another example of progressive logic that startled me so much I felt the need to spend some time with it. It is the idea that Traditional Christian teaching on sexuality is in some sense the cause of sexual dysfunction. The more I think about it, the more I think it identifies another feature of progressive theology that we’ve got to try and dissect.

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If you’ve been reading the news, then you know that there has been a series of massive, deeply disturbing revelations about sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic church. Responses have been grieved, frustrated, and angry, and in the midst of this all there is a strong desire to explain or rationalize the goings on. One piece, produced in part by the scandal, was from Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option and chief editor of the journal The American Conservative. He published a story and interview with a man named Gabe Giella, a gay, former Catholic, former seminarian, who recounts some of his horrifying experiences in seminary. (Long story short: the seminary was full of sexually deviant individuals, and when he didn’t play along, he was the one who got removed.) The article is worth reading in whole, and I recommend it strongly, but the key paragraph that startled me is the following. Giella writes,

Sexual secrecy is the currency in the church and learning how to use it is almost treated like an art form in seminaries. This culture has been woven into the fabric of Roman Catholic clergy culture for centuries. The church’s strict and absolute regulations around sex and sexuality which themselves are created and promulgated by the very men who breach them provide a perfect cover for those whose own sense of sexuality is without boundaries, regulation, or integration. Sexual secrecy and blackmail is the clergy’s bitcoin by which position, power, and control are bartered in the shadows, costing children and adults alike their faith, their safety and well being — and in some cases, their lives.

Now, before I comment on this, I want to make something really clear. My intention today is not to reflect upon Catholic practice and faith. As a rule, I keep my commentary on current events to those issues with which I have some personal involvement—I blog about conservative evangelicals, and I largely leave the issues of Orthodox, Catholic, or other believers to themselves. I think that’s only fair, and today’s post is really no different. I am not commenting, chiefly, on the Catholic sex abuse scandal. Serious commentary, and the business of criticizing and proposing solutions to that problem, is the purview of faithful Catholics (who, I add, have their work cut out for them and need our prayers). But in the comments I read from Giella, I detected elements of progressive thinking that I’ve encountered much more broadly. It is those elements that I want to treat with now.

Pope_Monkey see no evil

Yeah, but what about smelling evil?

First, there are a few things that Giella says that are quite important for us to hear. Chief among them is the role that secrecy plays in situations like the one he encounters. Secrecy gives added, corrupting power to sin, and in a context like a Catholic seminary, the secrecy of sexual desire—especially same-sex desire—must be necessarily strong. The wicked danger of this, however, is not simply that men keep quiet about their sexual struggles, but rather that secrecy is utilized as a tool of further suppression. And it certainly seems that in some circumstances suppression of talk about a situation is regarded as a solution to the problem, so that if we don’t talk about the elephant in the room, perhaps it will go away.

Another critically important aspect of Giella’s comments is his separation of gay priests from pedophile priests. Clearly, in the Venn diagram of these categories, they are not the same thing. There are gay men who are not pedophiles, and there are pedophiles who are not gay. Giella, and the other progressive thinkers I am familiar with, are right to reject the false equivalency that many traditional Protestants hold with regard to these categories. One does not necessarily mean the other.

Venn Diagram Template

Giella is not the only person who I’ve encountered recently who stresses this distinction, and he and the others I’ve read press it even further. They reject any material link whatsoever between desire for homosexual sex, and desire for homosexual sex with boys. For them, it is not a Venn diagram at all, with an overlap of homosexual and pedophile priests, but rather two completely separated circles, reflecting two completely different types of individuals. This makes a kind of sense, if one of your fundamental presuppositions is that homosexual attraction is a good. To the degree that you are committed to that claim, you must consequently reject any association between homosexual desire and categories of deviant desire (of which pedophilia would be one).

Since (on this line of thinking) deviant sexual desires cannot, by definition, account for homosexual and pedophiliac priests, something else must account for this. It is this ‘something else’ that I’ve detected in Giella’s rhetoric, namely, that the tradition itself is somehow responsible for creating this situation. Consider one of his sentences again, “The church’s strict and absolute regulations around sex and sexuality which themselves are created and promulgated by the very men who breach them provide a perfect cover for those whose own sense of sexuality is without boundaries, regulation, or integration.” The language of ‘integration’ is loaded. Earlier in Giella’s piece he speaks about integrated sexuality, which means, effectively, living openly as an ‘out’ individual. And the suggestion, however subtle, is that somehow it is the Church’s traditional, outdated, and repressive teaching on sexuality that is the real cause of the sex abuse scandals.

Gay Priest

Rev. Krzysztof Charamsa, left, and his boyfriend Eduard. He has lost his position in the Vatican. One also wants to ask, How can ‘integration’ be complete when you must also deny your vows? Isn’t there a disintegration at play as well? The presumption is that living ‘out’ is more honest, even if it means committing perjury. 

Think about this further. If ‘secrecy’ has created a climate of sexual sin, then what better way to address that secrecy than living openly, or ‘out’? The solution hinted at is that if the Church were to update its teaching on sexual morality, these problems would go away.

This, it seems to me, taps into a foundational aspect of Progressive theology—chiefly, and even embedded into the name, the aspect of progress. The logic runs something like this: we know more about sexuality than any time in history. Our knowledge, not surprisingly, exceeds that of the New Testament authors, who were entrenched in their first century worldview. Consequently, our new knowledge demands a re-thinking of those old (i.e., outmoded) sexual ethics. We have matured out of our old cultural taboos, and now we know that homosexual desire is not only not an evil, but a positive relational good. Our teaching must be adjusted accordingly.

Here’s the twist, though. Adherence to the old teaching is not only backwards and anti-progress, it is also dehumanizing. If I proclaim a traditional Christian sexual ethic, which condemns all homosexual practice, then I might be participating in a kind of abuse. My teaching is contributing to the fracturing of personalities, to the denial of central humanity, and even (on some accounts) to increased suicide. This, to me, explains why many of the Progressive Christians I’ve encountered view their teaching as a kind of liberation. They are ‘releasing’ people from the strictures of tradition to live full, ‘integrated’ lives.

Love is a human right

Human flourishing, in other words, cannot exist without sexual freedom.

There is so much to say at this point that I despair of saying it all. I think I will try to say only three things. First, I reject wholesale the narrative of ‘progress.’ Since the time of the Enlightenment, it has been a common enough (and false) claim that our new knowledge is superior in every way to the knowledge found in Christian teaching. It was there that the beginnings of the science and religion debate began to take shape. Heady with new scientific discoveries, Enlightenment thinkers readily dismissed the whole of Christian teaching, or even re-edited it to meet their specifications. They were guilty, then as now, of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” They didn’t evaluate the old ways of thinking on their own terms—instead, they were prejudiced toward their present and weighted the scales unfairly toward the past. New is not always better. With regard to modern sexual ethics, it is worth noting just how new they are in the history of the human race. Whatever claims they make to scientific basis and universality, these are fundamentally untested theories.

Second, there is something wrong, and even dishonest, about the rejection of categories of ‘disorder’ when discussing homosexual desire. On a biological, even evolutionary account, the purpose of sexual desire is the creation of more members of our species. To do that requires one member of each gender—sperm and egg. It follows that same-sex attraction, if we start with an evolutionary biological account of the human, is an obvious deviation from the norm. It reflects a disordered desire on the part of the individual. I want what I ought not to want as a sexual human being. To turn and sanctify the disorder does not and can not bring the person to greater integration. Instead, it reflects a kind of sanctified nihilism where this world, and its desires, and a form of temporal happiness, are all that matters. That, to me, is anti-Christianity.

Finally—and while this is the most important argument for me it may seem like the weakest—I have faith in the Spirit of God that He has not deceived us in the Scriptures brought down to us. Granted, there are crucial differences between the ancient world and our modern one. Granted, there are commandments and practices which appear to have lost the sting which binds them to us (e.g., women with head coverings, casting lots, etc.). But the Scripture presents a picture of the human person which has not changed—that I, and you, are made in the Image and likeness of God, that there are desires within my body that war against my living out of that image, that I am commanded to resist and submit those very desires to God’s Spirit in obedience, and that obedience looks a great deal like crucifixion of the self.

Saint_Anthony_Abbot_Tempted_by_a_Heap_of_Gold_Tempera_on_panel_painting_by_the_Master_of_the_Osservanza_Triptych_ca._1435_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art-660x350

St Anthony, patron of those who resist the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

Here, as with last week, it hasn’t really been my intention to argue with the line of Progressive Theology that I’ve encountered. In both cases, my goal has been to try and single out and bring a degree of clarity to an element of what is an admittedly large and complex body of thought. A proper argument against Progressive Theology, as I see it, would require a far more robust analysis of the concept of ‘progress,’ and with that a commensurate discussion on the role and sources of authority.

What’s in a Name?

It wasn’t long ago that my newsfeed was graced by two provocative image macros, each shared by a variety of different people. I want to share them with you today in order to reflect, critically, on what they mean, and to comment on a way that they are strikingly similar. The first image features a description of the “real” meaning of the Confederate flag. The second features the image of a priest describing a nonthreatening use of “Allah” in Christian worship. Here are both images now:

Confederate Flag Meaning

God-is-Allah_Palestinian Christian

You may be wondering why it is that I think these two images are strikingly similar, and the reason lies in the logic they utilize to make their case, a logic I find deeply troubling among many of my fellow Christians. There are two components to their similarity.

1) Both images consciously ignore the fact that names have history. There is a reason, today, why we don’t name our children Adolf or Judas. There is a reason why Chernobyl and Hiroshima continue to make us shudder. These names, for varying reasons, carry with them the baggage of their narratives—baggage which distinctly inflects the meaning of the names. And herein lies the key we must remember—names point to a history, point to a heritage. The history of a name is the unveiled history of its character. They don’t exist in abstract; they carry narrative baggage.

This is what is so very crucial about the unveiling of the name of God in the Old Testament. Previously, He was a kind of idea—an El, a God, possibly among other gods. But after Moses He was known by His own self-designation, YHWH, I am that I am, I cause to be what is. From that moment on the dealings of the Israelites with the being named YHWH constituted a developing narrative of character. No longer would general terms be as suitable, because God had taken control in a striking way of His own self disclosure. Want to know about god (el) generally? You’re going to have to get to know YHWH.

Burning Bush

So, when our priest claims that “Allah is just our name for God” there is a two-way sleight of hand. On one side, he is consciously neglecting the importance of God’s self-revelation in time through the narrative of YHWH’s actions. On the other hand, he is consciously side-stepping the narrative identity of Allah. Allah may have once meant ‘God’ in a vague and nondescript sense, but it can do so no longer, for in the machinery of Islam it has gathered to itself its own narrative baggage. Allah no longer means simply ‘god’ anymore than Baal means simply ‘god.’ As soon as it became a name it took on an accretion of historical data.

2) Both images consciously ignore the fact that symbols have a life beyond their etymology. I can describe in great detail the etymological meaning of the word Negro. I can talk about its links to the colour ‘black,’ how it represents a basic description of encounter between Caucasian and non-Caucasian persons. But no amount of explanation can overcome the fact that, within living memory, the word “negro” was used to exclude and marginalize, often visibly on signs like this one.

No Dogs Negroes

Decoding symbols and defining terms is important, crucial work, but we mustn’t neglect the fact that their use and application in history adds levels of meaning and determines their interpretation. No matter how one describes the Confederate flag (and, for the record, the description in the image macro is false), its use in rebellion, in the defence of slavery, and in the narratives of white power, render it ultimately reprehensible. The flag, like the word “negro” is an object of thought that, whatever its origins, now carries a symbolic weight beyond its ‘meaning.’ It is irresponsible, if not dishonest, to ignore that symbolic aspect.

The flag has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. Allah has a history, a narrative, and an accretion of symbolical significance. No amount of equivocating can sidestep these difficulties. And yet both these images operate from the same basic premise: if I explain a thing a certain way, all its troubles disappear. The rhetorical claim is something like this, “Here. This is what this thing really means. So relax, it’s no big deal, right?” Formally, this is logical fallacy called “Cherry Picking”—it’s where you point to one data set (favourable) and consciously ignore or neglect the rest of the data (unfavourable). In the cases above, the authors point to certain data sets (re: Allah, Confederacy), and neglect significant other ones (history, symbology).

Muggeridge5For me, this takes on an even more grievous slant, because in the hands of Christians—who are supposed to love the Word and what it means—it becomes a form, if you will, of exegetical abuse. I am reminded of something once said by Malcolm Muggeridge,

In the beginning was the Word, and one of the things that appalls me and saddens me about the world today is the condition of words. Words can be polluted even more dramatically and drastically then rivers and land and sea. There has been a terrible destruction of words in our time. (Muggeridge, The End of Christendom, 2)

Muggeridge’s words haunt me, echoing through my mind as I read, and listen, and observe the world. And nowhere do they grieve or astonish me more than when the Church, that great steward of the Word, participates in the destruction of its own sacred trust. Granted, it’s hard work to be faithful to the Word. The truth is that there’s enough cherry picking and equivocation in the world that, very often, the Christian message must begin with a proper definition of terms. But when we participate in these kinds of equivocation we discredit those places where we really do have a point to make about interpretation and misinterpretation. Abuse in one rhetorical field discredits us in others.

So let’s be critical of what we post and read, and let’s use our sacred trust—the treasury of the Word—wisely, faithfully, and with piercing clarity.

The “Church of Social Justice” and the Inner Ring

Years ago, my wife read Boundaries, that classic book on interpersonal relationships by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. As often happens in marriage, my lovely bride wanted me to understand her more fully, and so she asked me to read the book as well. The opening chapter described a “day in the life” of an un-boundaried person, and I will never forget my incomprehensible response to that description: “Why would anyone live this way?” I was overwhelmed with a tragi-comic sense of disbelief that anyone would struggle to say ‘no’ in a way that so catastrophically inconvenienced his or her life.

I recall that experience because I had a similar reaction to an article I encountered this past month, called “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice.” The piece, written by one Frances Lee, a self-identified QTPOC (Queer Transgender Person of Colour who prefers the personal pronoun “they”), documents the angst and anxiety of life within the social justice movement. That piece had, to me, the same tragi-comic flavour—tragic, because the account of the insider life of a social justice advocate sounds horrible; comic, because I simply can’t imagine ever choosing to live that way.

Mexican Vegetables_Rogaz Gugus

Photo by Rogaz Gugus, from Flickr.

“It is a terrible thing,” Lee writes, “to be afraid of my own community members.” Why the fear? Lee is formally an insider by virtue of his/her/their gender and sexual identity. Furthermore, Lee is clear about his/her/their formal alignment to the critical list of modern causes, expressed in a desire to “obliterate white supremacy, anti-blackness, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and imperialism.” What is the source of the fear, then? Lee writes:

It is the fear of appearing impure. Social death follows when being labeled a “bad” activist or simply “problematic” enough times. I’ve had countless hushed conversations with friends about this anxiety, and how it has led us to refrain from participation in activist events, conversations, and spaces because we feel inadequately radical.

It is, then, the fear of inadequate radicality—the fear of misalignment at the core of a given issue which is, de facto, defined by the experience of the other who holds all of the markers that define the cause. It is, presumably, the fear that generates strings of letters like LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual)—which seem grounded in the horror that a category might possibly be left out. In response to this fear, Lee writes, “I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate—no questions asked.” This is a horror to me, simply because it doesn’t describe a relationship so much as a tyranny—the tyranny, in this case, of the self-identity of the offended which produces not so much a relationship as a hostage situation.

Neglecting these declarations bears real repercussions, such that “Punishments for saying/doing/believing the wrong thing include shaming, scolding, calling out, isolating, or eviscerating someone’s social standing.” You are either in, or out, and this is primarily because, Lee suggests, “dogmatic activism creates an environment that encourages people to tell other people what to do.” The end result, Lee reflects, is that “The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included.”

Wild Swans CoverAs I read—and as I’ve thought about it over the past few weeks—my mind has gone to two places. The first was to remember Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, which is the story of her life, her mother’s life, and her grandmother’s life as they span the events in China from before the revolution to the present day. Poignant in my memories from that book are her descriptions of her mother’s life during the Cultural Revolution, when everyday citizens had to labour to prove themselves sufficiently proletarian, to mask all vestiges of bourgeois identity. She documents how Chinese under Mao plucked grass by hand from outside their homes because grass itself was considered excessively bourgeois. In the midst of these horrors Chang recounts the system whereby one citizen could denounce another with an accusation of bourgeois sentiments or activities and destroy that person’s home, family, and livelihood in the process.

The second place my mind has gone is to C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Inner Ring.” There, Lewis describes the social phenomenon of insiders and outsiders, and especially insiders and outsiders where the key identity markers of a group is that “we” exist by virtue of a “them.” And yet within this the boundaries for what marks inside and outside are not necessarily clear. A given individual has a clear sense that certain people are “in the know,” that he is not one of those in the know, and that he must do all he can to get himself in the good graces of those in the know so that he can be part of the inner ring himself. And yet even these boundaries are unclear, because there is always a ring within the ring, a circle within the circle, where the mystic source of true power lies. It is an image of community that is in fact a pure expression of hellish divisiveness. It is also a picture that Lewis puts to powerful effect in his novel, That Hideous Strength.

The correlation between Mao’s China, Lewis’s Inner Ring, and Lee’s “church of social justice” are hopefully clear. They are also ironic. In all three situations, groups with the ostensible purpose of coming together for some greater good (political, institutional, social) by virtue of their subjective nature in fact perform the opposite of that good. In the process, the mechanics by which humans collaborate are utilized hellishly, so fellowship collapses into fear, understanding gives way to uncertainty, and identity into fractiousness. To further this irony, Lee’s title suggests that his/her/their experiences of insider activist life correlate to an experience of the church, and this is teased out with references to dogma, purity, and the like. However, if you read the article (and I think you should), I think you’ll find that the metaphor simply doesn’t play out. Lee’s experience correlates to no church that I’ve ever known or experienced, and perhaps only marginally to some churches I’ve heard about in certain horror stories. And yet, Lee’s experience within social justice activism (as testified by comments on the piece) appears to resonate strongly with a broad range of likeminded people. Lee’s experience, while apparently normative for social justice, is abnormal for the church (and when it does happen the church has recourse to call it out and correct it).

Fractured Glass_Brenda Gottsabend

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend, from Flickr.

I suspect that the key difference between the church of social justice and that of Jesus Christ is one of subjectivism and objectivism. On a subjective scale of values, the “other” always holds the cards of self-definition, issue-definition, and, of course, authority on a given narrative of pain or injustice. On an objective scale of values, a given thing external to both you and me becomes the standard by which actions and persons are judged. For Christian communities, this external thing ought to be the Scriptures and Tradition, and it seems clear that when churches slip into the kind of aberrant inner-ring, witch hunting relationships, it does so by ignoring the objective standards and projecting a subjective one on others.

“This is what the Lord says,” cries Jeremiah (6:16), “Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls.” For a given issue, I have my marching orders—seek the ancient, godly path and walk in it. I need no anxiety, no nail-biting, no fear that I am conforming to the subjective projections of my peers, because, fundamentally, they too are called to seek those ancient paths, and, in fact, we are called to walk them together. In that mutual walking, we have common recourse to our text and tradition; these sources help us to adjudicate any and all disagreements. Of course, we can always ignore God’s ways—something that Jeremiah goes on explicitly to say in the very next phrase. He finishes (or rather the Lord finishes), “But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’”

I’m grateful, for what it’s worth, to have been given the opportunity to see the inside of Lee’s world for this short time, if only because our world is increasingly divided and siloed. In this, my intention has not been to pass judgment, but simply to reflect upon and identify what is the tragic, strange world which many of my more liberal friends appear to inhabit. I find in them an admirable, rich desire for justice. And yet, to their desire, a question remains: “Which Justice?” If you give an objective answer—one that stands in judgment over both you and I in equal measure—then that objective judgment has become in that moment tyrannical and oppressive, if only in regard to the injustice of our previous thoughts and actions. There can be no justice, in other words, without power, some kind of domination, and without an objective standard with which to negotiate these activities. And this, for my liberally minded peers, may be the greatest tragedy of all—that the further they move from the Author of justice, the further their desire extends beyond their reach.

Why Sex is Making us Morally Stupid

C.S. Lewis, writing on June 3, 1956 to a man who asked him about masturbation, offered the following striking and relevant advice:

For me the evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself. Do read Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell and study the character of Mr. Wentworth. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination. [Emphasis in bold added]

Obsession with the sexual life is obsession, in the end, with the self—it is a pure expression of the incurvatus in se, what in George MacDonald’s thinking is “The one principle of Hell is—I am my own.” When my sexuality is the measure of my life and relationships, then I am also removing from influence those people who would challenge me into real mortification. I have elevated my flesh in such an idolatrous way that any call to the willed death of the body is viewed with horror and suspicion. But the deeper danger of such lust, according to Lewis, is what this process does to my imagination. If my job is to extend beyond the prison of myself, and if my faculty of imagination is one of the key areas of my mind given to my by God to accomplish this task, then imaginative activity which corrupts and retards this process is a profound danger.

Claustrophobic Man Sitting

When the pursuit of bodily pleasure dominates a life, that person’s intelligence becomes suspect, and in time inevitably crippled. I was struck by this clearly while recently reading through Josef Pieper’s A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart. He writes that “an unchaste will to pleasure has the tendency to relate the entirety of the sensory world, especially sensual beauty, to only sexual lust.” The unrestrained desire for pleasure begins to work its way through the perceptions of the individual until the sexual appetite defines all other appetites. Lust becomes synonymous with pleasure. Pieper continues, “Only a chaste sensuality can achieve true human capacity: to perceive sensual beauty, such as that of the human body, as beauty and to enjoy it, undisturbed and unstained by any selfish will to pleasure that befogs everything, for its own sake.” The mind which is dominated by porneia [the Greek word for sexual immorality], by pleasure, sees in bodies only objects for consumption, sees in women only opportunities to express itself in lust. Pornography’s unique power is in its ability to render the irrational rational. The consumer of porn maps onto his or her mind not only a set of images, but a certain way of thinking, and those pathways are carried away from porn and applied in the rest of life. Lust in this way inevitably cripples moral knowledge.

Why should this be the case? Because the eyes are the organ that perceives beauty. When the eye is no longer searching for beauty itself, but seeking to map onto the world an expression and application of its own lust, then that lust in time warps perception of the good. What is best, and what is preferable, become enslaved to my personal desires. Pleasure makes subjectivists of us all. In turn, with beauty and good both soured, the capacity to apprehend truth is also corrupted. In this way, a man or woman who is led by his or her sexual desire is engaged in a process of dehumanization. After all, who would fail to agree that a crippled capacity for beauty is dehumanizing? He who suffers porneia to thrive in his life is being reduced to brutishness and eventual stupefaction.

Disintegration_Cyril Rana

Flickr: Photo by Cyril Rana

Lest you think this simply academic, this diminished capacity for moral knowledge has been on vivid display in churches which have chosen to affirm what is traditionally, and Scripturally, considered to be sexual deviance. The general convention of the Episcopal Church, after the US Supreme court ruled Gay Marriage to be the law of the land, immediately introduced new services and prayers to bless such unions. One such prayer, introduced at that time, is recorded by Robert Hart, writing in the March/April 2016 issue of Touchstone Magazine:

An Episcopal priest named Kimberly Jackson, of the Diocese of Atlanta, read a prayer to begin their version of communion: “Spirit of Life, we thank you for disordering our boundaries and releasing our desires as we prepare this feast of delight: draw us out of hidden places and centers of conformity to feel your laughter and live in your pleasure.”

God, then, conveniently affirms our choices and “releases our desires”—He gives us what our warped imaginations desire. The result, today, is not only that such unions are blessed, but churches have paved the path for openly gay clergy to rise to the highest ranks of church office. Moral corruption is pervasive, and the capacity to see such corruption is curtailed. It is doubtful that the Church has faced since the days of Arius a crisis of moral knowledge more serious than the one which confronts it now.

Church_on_fire_Credit_butterbits_via_Flickr_CC_BY_SA_20_CNA_8_3_15

Pieper concludes his argument about purity and vision with the following phrase, “only he who looks at the world with pure eyes experiences its beauty.” Purity of sight is a necessary precondition to the apprehension of beauty, and thus by proxy of both goodness and truth as well. And yet, in a very real way it is impossible for humans to achieve perfect purity of sight, if only because, as Jeremiah says, “the heart is deceitful above all else, and is desperately sick” (17:9). The wickedness which corrupts my capacity for beauty, goodness, and truth, is born from within me. From whence will we find help to resolve this dilemma? Jesus’ words in the sixth beatitude come to mind—“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Purity precedes the vision of God—but purity is impossible on my own. Therefore I must request help from outside myself. In this, I think Jesus has also spoken an irony—it is not only that the pure will see God, but those who set their gaze upon God who will be rendered pure. The solution is to get our eyes off of ourselves and onto the ultimate source of goodness, truth, and beauty.

For too long we have allowed ourselves to imagine that there is a divide between our sexual purity and our capacity for moral intelligence, between our sexual conduct and our pursuit of knowledge. Silently, as we allow ongoing and unrestrained life to our lust, we are also strangling our awareness of the beautiful, the true, and the good. Only a sight that is reaffixed on the beauty and holiness of God will be able to rescue us from the horror and stupefaction of our own persistent and self-serving inward gaze. Only a renewed commitment to God as He is, and not God as we want Him to be, will rescue the Church from its frightening trajectory towards apostasy.

Some Reasons to Feel Depressed about Christian Publishing

Bob Ross, anyone?

Bob Ross, anyone?

I don’t intentionally read depressing literature. It’s not my thing. But sometimes I accidentally read something that leaves me depressed, like the other day when I came across an essay by Christian author Philip Yancey called “Farewell to the Golden Age.” Reading it left me glum in two different ways.

In the piece, published on Yancey’s blog, he laments the demise of the publishing industry, particularly as a way to make a living. Where once an aspiring author could reasonably consider submitting articles to magazines, writing a few books, and by means of cultivating this exposure generating some income, changes in the publishing world have made this nearly impossible. The “Golden Age” of publishing, where to be an author was a viable (if difficult) career choice, is over.

Yancey’s essay isn’t particularly novel, but as a seasoned author (and seasoned especially in the world of Christian publishing) his words carried some sobering weight. That this is depressing to me ought to be, I hope, self-evident. I am myself an aspiring Christian author, and yet the field from which I aspired to harvest is one that is increasingly unfruitful. What is more, an author like Yancey who has succeeded in that field is advising other authors to look elsewhere.

But the real nugget of depression is not the difficulty of success—the real, deeper reason is the feeling I have that I was born in the wrong era. Talk of the “Golden Age” makes me long for the Golden Age, to wish I had lived in that time and place where books and words meant more to people, to a time when journalism was a valuable commodity and books were precious. Of the many sins of this digital age, I lament the cheapening of literature perhaps most of all.

No comment.

No comment.

This cheapening is having a far more devastating effect than perhaps we have yet fully acknowledged. It is not news that publishing has seen radical changes in the past few years, but those changes are beginning to affect not only publishers, but also authors, and in fact literature itself. To state it simply, as paid authors become a rarity there will be a necessary reduction in the quality of authorship. Hire a cheap contractor and you will get cheap contracting. Film a movie on a B-grade budget and you will get a B-movie. The cost we are willing to pay for a service is commensurate with the value we get out of that service. There are, of course, exceptions—some B-grade budget movies turn out excellent, and some A-grade movies are terrible. But on the whole, you get what you pay for, and the reduction in monetary value of books is going to result in the loss of quality in literature. I lament the loss of the Golden Age because it is a loss that affects literature itself.

And yet, I don’t actually wish that I lived 60, or 90, or 200 years ago. Sometimes (like I’m sure many others do as well) I find myself wishing I lived in a different age, assuming that the problems of that age were somehow simpler and more manageable than those of my own age. This is, of course, a lie. In each age the problems presented were difficult and all-consuming. In each age Christians at the forefront were driven to re-defend the Christian faith in new and novel ways (or, rather, to re-state old truths in modern dialects). I think the reason we sometimes wish we could live in those other ages is precisely the fact that today we have a comprehensive grasp of their problems. If we were to live in those ages, knowing what we know now and thinking as we do at the moment, we’d be able to sail through those troubles with ease. But our easy sailing would be like cheating on the test. It was easy because we knew all the answers.

Quite a fascinating movie, actually.

Quite a fascinating movie, actually.

Not knowing the answers is part of the human experience. The sense of confusion we experience is the same sense of confusion which our progenitors also endured. Their greatness—the very fact that they created a “Golden Age” for us to envy—was in their faithfulness to what was true in the midst of those very difficulties. If we would be great in our own age, then we must strive to be similarly faithful.

For my part, when I consider the issues of this present world, I actually find myself eager to face them: the issues of authority, of relativism, of secularization, and of Christian anthropology have effectively re-set the world mindset. As I see things, we are once again in the midst of idolatrous Rome, striving to carve out a vision of genuine faith that will strengthen the Church and lend energy to mission. Our very crises are profound opportunities to advance the cause of the Gospel, and for this work I am eager.

But, alas, here we come to the second reason why Yancey’s essay left me glum, because in order for the Church to accomplish this revitalization of faith, she will be required to think. And in order to think, the Church will need to read quality literature—books, essays, journalism, and yes, perhaps even blog posts. And yet, I suspect that the greatest enemy to the bolstering of faith is the quick-fix attitude Christians take toward their spirituality. A three minute YouTube video may give you a rush, an inspirational quote may uplift you for a moment, a worship service or sermon may exalt you for an hour, but real, proven, valuable faith must grow through the effective cultivation of the Christian mind and heart. This will require attention, sustained thought, and perseverance. In particular, it will require us to read good books.

This brings me back to, well, me. I am eager to address what I perceive are the problems of this present age, but I am distressed by the difficulty of effectively advancing Christian thinking. How does one get people to think in an age of quick fixes? When the drug of choice is the high of video—and by proxy of the digital image—how do you cultivate a taste for the slower and more satisfying pleasure of reading? For people who have learned to skim for the sentences in bold, how do you teach them to read carefully with a pencil in hand, making notes in the margins? I don’t have the answers. For my part, I suppose the only thing I can do is to attempt to write well. That, and take my own advice: be faithful in the midst of these challenges.