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.

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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.

The Crisis of Masculinity and “The Way of Men”

The Way of Men_Cover

It’s a right manly cover, innit?

There is a genuine and ongoing crisis in masculine identity. “What does it mean to be a man?” is a real and troubling question for a host of struggling men—old and young alike. Blogs, books, and men’s ministries alike attempt to present a semblance of answers into these critical questions, and yet it seems that the need for identity continues unabated. Men crave the fulfillment of their masculinity. Men are struggling to achieve it. I, ever curious to expand my understanding of these issues, recently on recommendation checked out from my local library a copy of Jack Donovan’s The Way of Men (Dissonant Hum, 2012). The experience of reading the book might be best described as unusual, because while I spent the majority of the book feeling mildly unsettled, there was one insight which neatly encapsulated one of the key problems in the current crisis in masculinity.

Donovan’s intention is to attempt to bypass all the expressly cultural influences into masculinity and arrive at an absolute, genuine core of what it means to be a man. He does this first by framing masculinity within two special conditions, those of biology and the survival scenario. Viewed in light of these conditions, he proposes that true manhood is defined by what he calls “tactical virtues”—strength, courage, mastery, and honor, each of which is given a special, nontraditional definition and treatment in light of the two conditions. The result is an interesting, if deeply flawed, exercise in examining the roots of masculinity, and while there was certainly something masculine about the book, it nevertheless read as a kind of caricature, a cartoonish and distorted picture of manhood. A certain measure of this distortion comes from the two conditions that limit the experiment, which in turn might account for the failure of the overall project. First of all, the survival scenario cannot be practically necessary to manhood. The vast majority of civilized man has lived outside of the survival scenario, and even those civilizations which lived at the edge longed in themselves for peace and security. To put it more succinctly, survivalism is not an end in itself, but a means toward a deeper security. In this, Donovan in focusing on the “tactical” side of the matter omits the deeper desires for peace and security. Men may wish to dominate others, but only as a means to secure some other end, and few but the most severe tyrants ever crave dominance for the sake of dominance. Plus, I might suggest that any book that has to appeal to a zombie apocalypse to give definition to manhood is bound to produce a manhood as unreliable as the zombie apocalypse. Second, by focusing on evolutionary biology, Donovan neglects the reality that humans—men—are more than our biology. Yes, I have an animal portion—a survival instinct, passions and desires—but I also believe that my humanity is something that transcends my biology. I think we might agree to this even independently of the Christian witness to which I ascribe, but Christianity reinforces this further. A real man is never expressed purely by his biology, but by his biology as it is made to serve some other end or purpose. I express the apex of my gendered humanity when I have learned how to make my body serve other ends—not when I serve the ends of my body. Donovan’s masculinity in many ways reduces me to my instincts, and I find this inadequate and troubling.

DaVinci's Man

It is more than simple biology that makes me a man.

When I had completed the book, in curiosity I looked up some reviews online. There I discovered, much to my astonishment, that Donovan is himself a homosexual but one who is highly contemptuous of any effeminacy. Another of his books, titled Androphilia, outlines his core philosophy of man-love (I haven’t read it). In some ways this explained some of the dissonance I felt while reading the book—Donovan’s perspectives are born from a radically different starting point than my own, and it is not unreasonable to deduce that Donovan’s love of a kind of “pure” manhood is indicative of a form of idolatry—worship of the image and likeness of maleness. In many ways The Way of Men is the thoughts of a man who worships biological masculinity.

However, sandwiched in the midst of some 150 pages of self-confident but troubling masculinistic rhetoric is about 20 pages that focus on a really compelling question. The section was in fact so compelling that it might have made the whole book worth reading. In it, Donovan attempts to outline a difference between “being a good man” and “being good at being a man.” As I read, and reflected on this, I came to think that the distinction is terribly important. “Being a good man” is something, in fact, that any human can do. The virtues asked of good men are virtues that can be asked of women and children alike (honoring commitments, telling the truth, etc.). There is nothing particularly “masculine” about being a good man. However, being good at being a man is a different idea altogether—one we should note is also more culturally defined. We understand this difference most clearly in contrast. There are good men who are not good at being men (we might note virtuous men who cannot light a fire or set up a tent), and there are men good at being men who are not necessarily good men (survivalists who murder). Naturally, being an outdoorsman is not the only way to be good at being a man, although at our present cultural juncture it is one of the characteristics of “masculinity” which we identify with being good at being a man.

Phil Robertson and Sons_2

It is possible that some of the appeal of the Duck Dynasty men is that they are both good men, and, in a very specific cultural sense, good at being men.

Donovan’s contrast is useful because it gets to the heart of the present crisis in masculinity. What does it really mean to be good at being a man? My Christian faith is very good at telling me how to be a good man—simply a good person, in fact—but it has struggled to define with the same clarity what it means to be good at being a man. Donovan’s overall thesis is alluring precisely because his answer to the question of masculine identity answers at the area of need. He is, in other words, attempting to answer the right question, and that sets him on a different kind of ground than other thinkers. Nevertheless, I disagree with his conclusions, not only for the aforementioned reasons, but also because I ascribe to a theological outlook. Whatever it means to be good at being a man, it needs to mean this in the context of a Creator God who created manhood for His own good purposes. Being good at being a man means for me to be good at being a man after the pattern of manhood that He desires. Biology thus submits to purpose.

I plan to write further on this issue, but for now I want to observe that books which treat of masculinity and spirituality are often fraught with difficulties. One of these difficulties is in starting from the wrong place—the books answer the wrong questions about masculinity. A further difficulty is in discerning the boundary between culture and revelation. Because the exercise is so challenging, and because there is such a deeply needy gap felt by masculine identity, almost any thought which rises to fill the space can be given weight and appear meaningful simply because there is so little to offer meaning. Proverbs 27:7 says that “To the starving man even what is bitter tastes sweet,” and books like Donovan’s offer an answer to the crisis men feel about masculinity. Because of the intensity of the need, even a false or misleading answer to the question of masculinity is regarded by men as superior to no answer or the answers offered by culture. Men are hungry to know what it means to be a man, and there is a significant need for Christian men to examine and explore this question from the right starting point. Donovan is right that goodness in itself will be insufficient to answer our biological summons to masculinity. Beyond that, there is still much work to be done in discovering and expressing a truly Godly manhood.

A Call to Elevate Our Discourse

The Problem

If you are at all like me then you lament the ongoing state of Christian creativity, that is, of the specifically Christian imagination as it is expressed in both the public sphere and the Church. Christian cinema, Christian radio, Christian television productions, Christian media personalities, Christian artwork, Christian music—for each discipline appending the label “Christian” has the effect of qualitatively lessening the seriousness and effectiveness of the creative effort. Regrettably, a so-called “Christian” artist is almost universally not a very good artist.

Left Behind

This is an ironic state of affairs, especially since the Christian story truly is the greatest story ever told, tapping into the full range of human emotions and situations, possessing power to reach humans of any background, any socioeconomic status, any stage in life. Strangely, possession of this story has not succeeded (at least in this century) at making of Christians particularly good storytellers. Christians have at their disposal access to the immeasurable depths of the God who created the universe, but settle instead to pander about as intellectual infants. Christians have the capacity to speak with immense cultural resonance, and yet frequently appeal to the merely sentimental. We have the potential to instruct the heart in the depths of the knowledge of God, but instead choose to bludgeon the emotions with saccharine, simplified, and perpetually “safe” content. We have set as our standard the wisdom of doves, and the consequence is that at times our creative efforts are as harmful as serpents.

The Cause

A root cause of this situation is an overarching obsession with utility. In the Christian world, if a thing is not considered directly useful for the gospel, then it is not considered beneficial. To expand on this, if a media form does not fit directly within the narrow confines of a specific area of church life—such as evangelism, encouragement, or instruction—then it is immediately suspect. What use is a painting that doesn’t instruct? If it’s not about a specific Bible story, how can I know it is safe? What use is a song that doesn’t function in worship? What use is a radio station that doesn’t encourage? If a movie has “worldly” content in it, doesn’t that mean it is poisoning my mind and my purity? Our ability to categorize and appreciate creative efforts is thus sharply filtered through a lens which measures the inherent usefulness of the effort. Creativity has been enslaved to utility.

Jesus and the Businessman

This utilitarianism is augmented by a cultivated suspicion of things that are practiced. For some time Christians have concluded (falsely) that something produced by an individual without training is superior to something produced by another individual with training. We elevate the amateur on the grounds that he or she displays a special anointing of the Spirit—in other words, lack of credentials is implicit evidence of the work of God. This was brought into clear focus for me recently when I encountered the following passage in Phillips Brooks’s Lectures on Preaching,

As I begin to speak to you about literary style and homiletical construction, I cannot help once more urging upon you the need of hard and manly study; not simply the study of language and style itself, but study in its broader sense, the study of truth, of history, of philosophy; for no man can have a richly stored mind without its influencing the style in which he writes and speaks, making it at once thoroughly his own, and yet giving it variety and saving it from monotony. I suppose the power of an uneducated man like Mr. Moody is doing something to discredit the necessity of study among ministers and to tempt men to rely upon spontaneousness and inspiration. I honor Mr. Moody, and rejoice in much of the work that he is doing, but if his success had really this effect it would be a very serious deduction from its value. When you see such a man, you are to consider both his exceptionalness and his limitations. In some respects he is a very remarkable and unusual man, and therefore not a man out of whom ordinary men can make a rule. ~ Phillips Brooks, Lectures on Preaching, 146-147

DL Moody a friend of ECM in the Revivals of 1873 and 1880s026Brooks’s target is preaching, and in his view he has the powerful and popular ministry of D.L. Moody, the uneducated but globally effective evangelist. If we make a model of Moody, appealing to his lack of education to undercut our own requirements, then we are ignoring the uniqueness of Moody. Not all men are Einsteins, but the existence of a single Einstein does not lead us to conclude that any old person can give a lecture on advanced physics. Why then would we assume that untrained individuals are similarly suitable for Christian service? The source of such an attitude, in Christian praxis, is clearly a form of laziness; I will trust in the Spirit, that is, so that I don’t have to do my homework.

Laziness, let us be clear, is a form of utilitarianism. It states that I will only pursue those tasks which I find directly beneficial to what it is that I am doing. It foreshortens our ability to perceive of how the Christian faith might bear impact on a wide range of subjects. To put this another way, the lazy utilitarianism of the Christian mind sets a list of approved subjects for study; then, searching within that list, typically finds only what it looks for. And it is precisely this simplicity that generates simple-minded, emotionally monotonous media as well. Instead, the Christian mind ought to stretch out into the breadths of the world equipped with the depths of Christian understanding. The Christian mind is not a mind of Christian things, but a mind equipped with the mind of Christ prepared to encounter all the things of the world.

A First Repair: Recovering the Breadths of Christianity

How will we go about aspiring to such a mind, breaking the bonds of our utilitarianism? The first way to repair will be to recapture our conviction of the breadths of Christianity. Brooks’s words about preaching therefore bear impact here as well. He challenges ministers (and I extend this to all Christians) to be individuals who read widely and richly, to explore the depths of the knowledge of God as that knowledge is revealed in all the diversity of the world. This is to recover our conviction, in Arthur Holmes’s phrase, that “All truth is God’s truth.” Practically, this means that the particularly Christian attitude is not to assemble the list of preapproved and “safe” subjects for Christian study, but instead to search out how to expand our Christianity into every subject, to attend for those glimmers and glimpses of God’s revealed character as they present themselves to us in each and every matter. Paul, speaking in Second Corinthians to his actions as an apostle, hints at this process in a way that I think is fair to extend here, that “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). We are not specifically in search of only obedient thoughts, but we are striving to bring all thoughts into obedience to Christ.

GreatBooksWesternWorld

If such an attitude is right, then it ought to change the Christian approach to art and creativity, thus elevating our discourse in society. Our focus will not be to be good “Christian” artists, but to be good artists who happen to be Christian. C.S. Lewis speaks to this in a talk he once gave on apologetics: “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent” (Undeceptions, “Christian Apologetics,” 67). The supremely evangelistic task, in other words, while it is occasionally served by directly apologetical books (e.g., Mere Christianity), is in fact better served by the faithful presence of Christians doing their own individual work well as Christians. We need not Christian movies, but good movies made by Christians with their Christianity informing their work; not more Christian recording artists, but good music made by Christians with their Christianity bleeding out into their songs. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for expressly pedagogical Christian work. Just the other day I listened to some songs which were scripture, set to music for children. But the purpose of such pedagogy—and the purpose, I might suggest, of our public worship and education as well—is to expand the Christian mind so that it can encompass the world. Our education should not narrow, but broaden the mind, and it must begin by remembering that the Christian story envelops the whole of the world, past, present, and future. Until we regain a conviction of those breadths we will fail to effectively speak our depths into the deep needs of the world.

A Second Repair: Recovering a Conviction of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good

A second treatment for our utilitarianism is to recover our conviction of the true, the beautiful, and the good. If Christian creativity is not to be based on its usefulness, then its basis must be some other thing. We must create, in other words, because we are convinced that a thing is true, or that a thing is beautiful, or that a thing is inherently good, and our creative efforts ought to tether back to these factors. And yet it is possible that a key reason why we have retreated from these three transcendentals to the merely useful is because we have become deeply confused about what they are. Just recently I read an article in the Independent about students who struggle to read all their assigned textbooks. The closing quote was illuminating about the state of the human mind, “Lizzy Kelly, a history student at Sheffield added: ‘Students might be more inclined to read what academics want them to if our curricula weren’t overwhelmingly white, male and indicative of a society and structures we fundamentally disagree with because they don’t work for us.’” Books, in other words, are not worth reading on their own merits, nor because they might communicate something true, beautiful, or good, but because they ought to “work for us.” Utility thus assassinates the true.

TheRoadThere is further confusion even in identifying the qualities of these characteristics. A year ago I heard a Christian literature professor give a lecture on the image of God in Cormac McCarthy’s startlingly dystopic The Road. She persistently described that book, which remains one of the grittiest, darkest, books I have ever read, as “beautiful.” Now, I was willing to agree with her that the book was both gripping and theologically compelling, but to describe it as beautiful felt like a profound misapplication of terms. The book was decidedly not beautiful. The language might have been beautiful, and the contents might have illuminated something of the truth of human depravity and God’s faithfulness, but the contents themselves were fundamentally ugly, even hideous. She had confused the true and the beautiful, and the consequence was to muddy our Christian understanding of the world, rather than illuminate it.

I want to suggest that if we have failed to properly identify these characteristics, it is because we have left off educating ourselves in their pursuit. I find myself drawn again and again to the following passage in C.S. Lewis’s magnum opus, The Abolition of Man,

“Can you be righteous,” asks Traherne, “unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.” St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful. ~ C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 28-29, emphasis added)

The point is that we must train ourselves to see those things which are worth seeing. We become hungry and on the lookout for truth, no matter where it might be found. We train our eyes to see the beautiful and strive to find it in all of life. We cultivate a taste for the good and are eager to experience it in all things. We admit complexity and nuance, that God is communicating to all people at all times, reaching out in love through all the world’s corrupted creativity to show something of His glory. And in this way we reject the simplistic, the saccharine, and the safe–exchanging them directly for the true (which is not simplistic), the beautiful (which is never saccharine), and the good (which is rarely safe).

Christian education—that process by which individuals who profess Christ are guided into deepened maturity in all the fullness of Christ, that process by which we are taught to feel pleasure and disgust at those things which are really pleasant or disgusting—is a weakened and sickly thing. We have retreated when we ought to have advanced, circled our wagons when we ought to have gone walkabout. The world is there, each stone eager to declare the glory of God. The furrows of the world are deep, anticipating the clear water of Christ to irrigate and bring forth fresh fruit. But it is only as Christians reject utility and commit to educating ourselves in the true, the beautiful, and the good that we will succeed in elevating the level of our discourse, and thus bring the full weight of our creative potential into the greater service of the Kingdom of God.

Dear James–Some Correspondence on Issues Presently Concerning the Church

Dear James,

Thank you for your recent letter. It pleases me to reply to you, not because I consider myself to be a special expert on any of the topics about which you have written me, but because I realize that any opportunity to lay out answers to the kinds of questions you ask is an opportunity to sharpen my own thoughts. So please take it to understand that I am eager to answer you not on the merits of my intelligence, but on the merits of your questions.

It seems to me, rereading your thoughts, that while you touch on a number of subjects—the decline of Christendom, the rise of atheism, shifts in culture through both marriage and gay marriage, the presence of (shall we say) unorthodox or false Christians in the visible Church, and so forth—the real centre of your concern seems to me to be twofold: first, you are eager to know what is the ‘right’ way (orthodoxy), and second, knowing that ‘right’ way you desire some practical answers to the questions that trouble our times. Have I read you rightly? If so, then I want to begin with a word that may or may not be comforting: I do not think you are alone in your concerns. That might comfort you because you can know that you share these concerns with others. But it might also trouble you because it implies that the questions you are asking are widespread, if not pervasive.

The real trouble we face when talking about the “right” way or the orthodox way (small o orthodox, by the way) is we have come to believe, and have been told again and again, that there is no such thing as a “right” way. “Who are you to judge?” is the question thrown at any serious Christian in search of the truth. In fact, the entire structure of education and public discourse for the last fifty or so years has been tuned for exactly this purpose, promoting a fictitious and disingenuous equality of ideas. It is fictitious because, clearly, not all ideas are equal. The idea of slavery is an idea, but we consider it to be an idea inferior to the idea of freedom. If all ideas are equal then on what grounds can we possibly say that slavery is inferior to freedom? We cannot, and we do not. But while we permit these kinds of moral conclusions in areas that are culturally favorable, we are clipped and hindered from exercising our moral reasoning when it comes to other areas. Here the concept is disingenuous, because if the same moral reasoning that causes me to conclude that freedom is superior to slavery—as we might also claim brotherly love superior to racism, or peace superior to war—if that same reasoning applied to questions of belief concludes that one system of belief is superior to another, then my reasoning is condemned wholesale, and I am accused of judging. Never mind that the accuser has just judged me in the process!

All that to say that when we talk about the “right” way of Christianity, we are speaking words that are controversial on many different levels. They are controversial because they offend against culture, controversial because they claim, in and of themselves, a kind of absolute standard that judges all others, and controversial because they have the potential to offend other Christians against whom we appear to be standing when we claim to be approaching what is “right.” This is a tricky business, made more so by the fact that it is such an easy business to attack Christianity by highlighting the vast number of denominational divisions among us. “If you are so divided,” the attack goes, “how can I have any assurance that you know the truth? You want me to become a Christian, but what kind?” It is difficult to deny the merits of the accusation, is it not? But I believe there is a good answer—one that we perhaps need to hear more than our accusers. If Christianity is like a vine, then it is very important to understand that while Christ is the vine itself, each denomination, each individual Christian, in fact, is a branch stemming from that vine. There are hundreds and thousands and millions of branches, each connected to Christ. Not all of those branches are bearing fruit, and not all of those branches are healthy. Some branches look dead but still have a core of life within them. Others look quite alive but are rotten inside and will soon be cut off and tossed aside. This is the place where it is difficult to judge. However, the one thing we do in fact have, the one thing to which each and every Christian has access, is a vision of the vine itself. We can always look at Christ, and by looking at Christ we get a clear idea of what Christianity is supposed to look like. To put it bluntly, Christianity has always been more about Christ than about individual Christians.

To put this another way, what I’m talking about here is what I want to call Centrist Christianity. By “centrist” I mean a Christianity that is focused on the Centre, not “centrist” in the political sense of coming to the middle between two opposites. I think you know that in the Christian God there is no compromise with evil, no accommodation to wickedness. God purifies the wicked, but relationship with Him in no way means “finding a middle ground for our sin.” No, the Christian faith is a matter of falling to our knees before the cross of Christ—the absolute middle of all things—and there receiving our own crosses to follow in Christ’s footsteps. This is similar to what one of my former professors used to call being “seeker sensitive”—not to tailor Christianity to those seeking Christ, but to tailor our Christianity to Christ, who is the Seeker. You can see there is a critical difference between the two.

Given all this, I want you to know that I believe it is possible to be more or less on the right side with God. But don’t misunderstand me—I’m not claiming to be personally “right,” as if I am the source of all rightness and the standard by which rightness is judged! You or I will never get to claim that our way is God’s way (or, as a friend of mine says, “My way is Yahweh!”)—we can only mutually approximate our understanding of Christ and his way, and then labor stridently to bring our lives in accordance with that way. In fact, this brings us curiously right back to Christ’s command not to judge from Matthew’s gospel—go re-read that passage and you’ll see that he goes on to give advice on how to judge! The chief criteria of judgment, there? “By the measure you use it will be measured to you.” In other words, we do not come as judges against each other, but we come mutually to the judgment seat of Christ and are judged together. In Christian judgment, Christ has all the power, the final word.

I think that’s all for now. Do you think I have understood your initial concerns rightly? And are we on the right track together? We want to be on the same page before we continue, because if we lack a common foundation none of the other considerations will add up. There’s no point discussing atheism, or false teachers, or racism, if we do not have a common set of principles from which to approach the questions. Also, please tell me a little more about yourself in your next letter. You say you are a regular worshipper, but can you tell me more about your church experience? Answering abstract questions is one matter, speaking to another soul in a journey with Christ is something different—and quite a bit more serious, too.

Every Blessing,

Jeremy

The Cat and the Comedian

Tiananmen Square

One of my favorite high school teachers once spoke a lesson I will never forget. It was about the difference between fear, terror, and horror. Fear, he said, was like saying to one of our classmates, “I’m going to kill you!” and meaning it. The classmate would then experience fear. Terror, he said, was—imagining him to be much larger, stronger, and meaner—grabbing that student by the neck, hauling him to the top of a high building, and holding him over the edge. At that point, the student would be experiencing terror. Horror, he went on to explain, was what the people on the ground would feel when he dropped the student to his death.

Just a few days ago my wife and I witnessed a horror while driving home. While we waited our turn at a busy intersection, an unwise black cat (evidently stray) attempted to beat the first three lanes of oncoming traffic and failed. It was struck once, attempted to turn back too late—a second time—turned again, now confused—and was hit a third time. The oncoming cars had nowhere to go, the cat was small and stupid, the outcome was inevitable.

My wife covered her own eyes, then worked to avert the eyes of our young son in the back seat. Meanwhile, I watched—I felt somehow that it was important to watch—while the cat twitched and spasmed, its back arched. The light had turned, no cars passed through the intersection, and all that could be done was to keep a strange vigil during the final moments of that feline’s life.

Meanwhile, in a lonely room in California, another horror took place. Robin Williams, comedian extraordinaire, brilliant fount of joy in others, took his own life. But for him, no one was there to witness. No cars stopped. No one knocked on the door. No one was there to keep vigil as he twitched, and spasmed, and expired.

At the same time as both of these things—even at this very moment while you read these words—horrors are enacted around the world both close to you and far away. Humans are shooting other humans in eastern Ukraine. Islamic militants are invading and—by all accounts—massacring thousands of innocents in Iraq. Ebola is ravaging lives in Liberia. Some 150,000 people die each and every day, and that means that since you began reading these words moments ago, almost 100 people have passed away, a full third of them by unnatural means.

Cars pass by. The house is silent. The world continues to spin. Tomorrow, another 150,000 will die. The sun rises on another day.

Each of these horrors identifies experiences with which we are bombarded on a constant basis—each is, objectively, horrifying. We stand on the ground and watch it happen. And yet, to each we respond in markedly different ways. The outpouring of grief over the death of Robin Williams seems disproportionate to the grief warranted by the global atrocities, or even to that of the local horrors. It is fair to ask the question: Why should this be the case?

Let’s consider the three kinds of horror in turn. Let’s call the first horror Hometown Horror. This is the cat, dying in the street. It is the junkie overdosing in your neighborhood. It is the car accident you witnessed. It is the shooting which happened nearby. It the cancer ward of your local hospital. It is the neonatal ICU. These horrors are close to home—they are terrible things to see and witness. They are hard to forget.

The second kind I’ll call Global Horror. These are the news reports, the (endless) Facebook posts, the grainy and uncensored video of atrocities. These are horrors for which you, as a witness, have no particular personal investment—you don’t know where Ukraine is on the map, you can’t identify where Israel ends and Gaza begins, Liberia is part of Africa, right? They are abstracted images which nevertheless evoke our sense of compassion and justice, if we let them.Ukraine-map

And let’s call the final kind of horror Imaginary Horror. This is the horror we experience when someone we don’t actually know, but feel that we know, experiences a personal horror. In response we, because we imagine that we know them, imagine that their horror is our own experience. The word “imaginary” here is not meant to diminish the horror—rather it is meant to describe the action by which we enter into the other person’s story.

Why then is it easier to feel grief and horror for the third kind, the Imaginary Horror, than it is for the Global or Hometown varieties? Why does Robin Williams get more grief than the people dying in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and Palestine?

First, I think there is a problem of scale, and this is one of the chief things that stands in the way of responding to Global Horrors with appropriate conviction. One man dying is imaginable, while a whole city being destroyed is unimaginable. The number “1” is conceivable—you can wrap your head around the integer of a solitary man, in sadness, taking his life. You cannot wrap your head around 1,000 people dying violently. It is quite simply beyond your capacity (even if you witnessed it firsthand). Practically speaking, there is a cap on the human capacity to take in suffering (thank God).Arlington-National-Cemetery-during-Spring

Second, I think there is a problem of solitude. This is particularly the case with Hometown Horrors. These are starkly solitary. I and my wife alone, and perhaps one or two other drivers, witnessed the death of the cat. We will never know or speak to the other drivers. Nobody else knows what happened. Nobody will remember the event. There is nothing to share about it. And this was only a cat. There is a terrifying solitude to hospital rooms and hospice wards, a debilitating loneliness to the horror of a lost loved one. Nobody can go through that with you, and you are brought abruptly and violently face-to-face with the stark reality of loss.

By contrast, the death of a famous person invites us to grieve and respond in community. You can talk openly with your friends, family members, fellow workers and students about these events. You can share your favorite memories of the individual. Even though you didn’t actually know him or her, you are able to imagine together as if you did. The loss, though real in our emotions, is more manageable because we walk through it together.

Third, and closely attached to the problem of solitude, is that of un-grieved grief. Systematically over the past century we in the West have removed our habits and customs of ceremonial grieving. We no longer mourn for our losses; we don’t wear clothes for mourning; we abbreviate or skip funerals altogether; we expect those who have lost to recuperate quickly. It is as if by ignoring death we hope it will go away. But it seems to me that with the deaths of celebrities we give ourselves permission to grieve. I suspect that we do this because we have allowed our emotional lives to be trained by our media. Film has taught us how to feel, and when our film stars die we show deep outpourings of feeling. They, after all, have been our counselors and friends, interpreting and making sense of the horrors of the world. It is to them that we have turned for comfort when the horrors closer to home loomed large. And so our un-grieved grief at the tragedies and horrors of life are given permission to express themselves when a cinematic icon has died—even more so when the death was tragic and horrible.

like-us-on-facebook-buttonFourth and finally, there is the problem of powerlessness. To witness the violent death of an animal awakens a portion of our human powerlessness—I immediately knew there was nothing I could do. I could only watch. But to stand by the bedside of a sick loved one and acknowledge his or her imminent death evokes a powerlessness that is orders of magnitude higher. In the face of our powerlessness we become anxious and attempt to fix the problems. When this happens we aren’t really trying to help the person, we’re only trying to resolve our own anxiety. We recommend crackpot cures for incurable diseases. We tell people to cheer up and think positively. We ask people to “like” posts as shows of support for global suffering. We share news stories and anecdotes and bad advice. Each is a product generated by our impotence in the teeth of suffering and horror.

It is because we feel so powerless in the face of Hometown Horrors, and so impotent in the face of Global Horrors, that we are eager to grieve the Imaginary Horrors. Our grief—the emotion itself—is something we can do. We can participate, and be part, and share our memories, and talk about suicide prevention, and diagnose mental illness, and remember all the good, and so forth and so on. The Imaginary Horror provides an outlet for us to trick ourselves into thinking we’ve actually done something with our grief.

There is nothing wrong with the experience of Imaginary Horror, but there is something wrong when we pursue, experience, and seek out Imaginary Horrors at the expense of the Hometown and Global varieties. It is easier to feel the grief—and therein lies the trap, because a person who consumes a diet of Imaginary Horrors and ignores those closer to home is himself in the process of becoming a horror. Such a person will grieve for the celebrity but ignore the starving child; she will wallow in sentiment and be bankrupt of real conviction; he will “like” the news story but hate his suffering neighbor. That person is in grave danger of becoming a consumer of horror.

Viktor Frankl once said that “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.” If there is significance in human life, in the whole experience of being born, growing, living, aging, and dying, then that significance must find roots in human suffering. Frankl speaks with conviction and authority—he himself was a Holocaust survivor.viktorfrankl1

How then do we find the meaning in these horrors? What are we to do? Well, to begin we must grieve where grieving is appropriate. The Imaginary Horrors help us here—in our sickness they grant us permission to grieve. The trick is that our grief, our reaction of sadness, must not end there. We must take that grief and apply it closer to home. If I feel sadness for the death of Robin Williams (and I do), how can I apply that sadness into grief for matters closer to home, or matters of global importance? I can begin by reminding myself that, indeed, grief is the appropriate response. I ought to feel sad, and horrified, by the news I read and the stories that are published on social media. To not feel these horrors as the horrors they are is to be callous, empty, inhumane.

Next, we must remember that the barrage of information we get about the world is a based on the illusion of interconnectedness. It is tempting sometimes to think that there are more horrors in the world than ever before, but I don’t think this is the case. We must acknowledge that, in fact, it is a product of our media environment that we are even aware of most of these horrors to begin with. In other words, we are documenting more horrors than ever before, and because we feel more interconnected, these all feel closer than they previously did. To this, I think some balance is in order. We should set times for ourselves to read the news, and set times when we don’t read the news. Our attention must be either equally or more focused on the real, practical world around us than it is on the world as presented to us through the lens of media. Otherwise we will be like Levites on the road to Jericho, checking our cell phones for the latest horrors but missing the wounded man entirely.

Additionally, we must act where it is appropriate to act. There is little or nothing we can do for Imaginary Horrors—they are pure emotion with little useful practical actions. However we must consider careful and appropriate action for Global Horrors. Is there suffering we can alleviate? Can I give money? Can I volunteer? Do I know anyone who is near that location who can give me solid, non-media information? Discern, then act in accordance with wisdom. When it comes to Hometown Horrors our powerlessness is most apparent. There we must also act with the greatest wisdom—there also we will need to be most aware of our anxiety. Ask yourself: Am I trying to fix this problem? Am I trying to fix this person’s grief? Don’t try to fix it unless you’ve been asked to do something. If you are with someone who is grieving, just be with the person. He or she needs your company and friendship more than your solutions. Buy lunch. Bake cookies. Do the dishes. Be available. Don’t try to explain things.

Lastly, because all horrors confront us with our powerlessness, we must take time to experience that powerlessness. This is extremely hard to do. It means silence, and confrontation, and acknowledgement of our own weakness in the face of death, dying, and misery. It may mean tears. It will certainly mean some solitude. But the willed and chosen experience of our own powerlessness is the only way to harmonize the three kinds of horror—to bring them together and reconcile our divided humanity. Only then will be able to grieve, and grieve wisely, and act appropriately—to respond with full and robust humanity to both the cat and the comedian. And, perhaps also, it is the only means through which we will be blessed with real, lasting comfort.

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

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.