“Pull the goalie” — What preachers like me can learn from Malcolm Gladwell

“Pull the goalie” — What preachers like me can learn from Malcolm Gladwell

“Preaching,” said the late, great Haddon Robinson, “is like playing the violin: it’s easy to do badly.”

If you’ve tried it, you know.

I teach preaching to college students. Yet I am acutely aware that I am still a novice. Like many pastors, I often sit back in my seat after the message with that line from W.E. Sangster running through my head: “Next time, I shall preach!”

Even so, the fact is that we preachers can learn a lot from the communication habits of non-preachers, like Malcolm Gladwell in his fantastic podcast: Revisionist History .

One of my most popular blog posts (here) was on another episode of Gladwell’s podcast. But this piece is on his most recent episode, entitled: “Malcolm Gladwell’s 12 Rules for Life.”

gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell; p: kris krüg

TWELVE RULES FOR LIFE

The title is misleading.  Because while Jordan Peterson offers a dozen rules for living, Gladwell has only one:

“Pull the goalie.”

Without spoiling the episode, Gladwell’s basic point is this: In order to make wise decisions when others won’t, you need at least two things:

  1. The willingness to follow data where it leads.
  2. The stubbornness to be profoundly disagreeable.

Most of us have neither.

Hence, like the majority of hockey coaches, we refuse to “pull the goalie” till the very last minute, when tradition and opinion dictate–and when it’s already too late.

You’ll have to listen to learn what Gladwell’s rule has to do with

  • hedge funds,
  • poker players,
  • home invasions, and
  • the life expectancy of NRA members.

I won’t ruin it.

BACK TO SERMONS 

My point is that preachers (like myself) could learn a lot from Gladwell’s podcast—and from this “puckish” episode particularly.

Here are seven lessons:

1. One point to rule them all

The first takeaway involves the elegance of a single, simple big idea.

Gladwell doesn’t give his hearers a list of points as I often do in sermons — because lists aren’t memorable (including this one).

Instead, he gives them one intriguing big idea: “pull the goalie.”

For as J.H Jowett argued:

No sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express [it] in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as crystal.

While this doesn’t prohibit a good sermon from having points (I’m working on one now for Sunday), it does mean that those movements should come in service to a single, simple big idea.

2. Short but pregnant

“Pull the goalie” is just three words.

But the phrase is “pregnant” because it demands unpacking.  Its brevity gives birth to a variety of explanations and applications.

3. Enigmatic till explained

In fact, it needs unpacking because the phrase is enigmatic till explained.

Its meaning isn’t obvious (outside of hockey). In my experience, the best big ideas are often opaque at first blush.  They require elaboration, despite their “stickiness.”

“Unless you hate your father and mother…” would be case in point.

4. Counterintuitive, not counterfactual

In preaching, as in life, “boredom is a form of evil” (another Haddon Robinson quote).

Thus the value of a counterintuitive message is its ability to get people interested.  Getting someone to say “Huh…!?” means they’re listening.

“Blessed are the poor and persecuted…” does that.

But “interested” isn’t enough; the statement must also be true.

For Gladwell, the counterintuitive use of “pull the goalie” is supported by a mass of evidence from hedge funds to homicide statistics.

It’s “moneyball” for life.  And while the strangeness is designed to suck you in, the data is designed to convince you once the “Huh?” wears off. 

5. Applied specifically

While Gladwell’s research is often esoteric, he never fails to make it matter.

Hence “Pull the goalie” is applied to far more than hockey.  As he argues, it could be the difference between life and death.

(Pay attention if you own a handgun.)

6. Qualified appropriately

In some cases, the difference between a fascinating preacher and a “fired” one is the ability to say something provocative and then move to qualify it appropriately.

One must anticipate the objections of the audience and then answer them in the sermon, as opposed to waiting for a series of angry emails (or board meetings).

Jesus didn’t always do that.

But he was God.

And also, they killed him.

7.  Repeated

Unlike many of my mediocre sermons, there is no doubt about what Gladwell’s big idea is—because he repeats it with emphasis on more than one occasion.

“Pull the goalie.”

“Pull the goalie.”

“Pull the goalie.”

And by the end, it’s not some trivial bit of Canadian appropriation (though Gladwell is Canadian); it’s a rule for life–and preaching.

 


Like this post? Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

Each newsletter will contain material not available on the blog, including excerpts and info on forthcoming books.

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

Rethinking Roe v. Wade

Rethinking Roe v. Wade

The Ministry of Magic has fallen.”

That’s the apocalyptic phrase that a good friend of mine used yesterday to convey to me the news of Justice Kennedy’s retirement.

If you don’t speak “Potter,” it’s a quote that signals the totality of the Dark Lord’s takeover of all branches of Government.

And according to CNN, my friend was right—especially when it comes to “Abortion Rights.”

with kennedy gone
Screengrab, CNN.com

According to Jeffrey Toobin, “Roe v. Wade is doomed” because of Kennedy’s departure.

And while I wish that were true, I’m not so sure.

ROE v. WADE

My aim here is not to evaluate the full scope of Kennedy’s influence, or even the net gain or loss because of his departure on other legal matters.  If you’re interested in that discussion, please see the comments section on my MySpace page.

My interest here is narrow.

It is merely to explain (without hyperbole or divisive WWE-inspired rhetoric) why young, Pro-Life Christians like myself think it would be a good thing if Roe v. Wade were overturned—despite the fact that I am about the furthest thing from a so-called “Court Evangelical” as is imaginable.

Here is the basic line of reasoning:

  1. All human beings have basic human rights.

In this way, my reason for opposing Roe v. Wade is the same as my reason for opposing slavery, Jim Crow, the Nazi holocaust, human trafficking, sexual assault, and the “ripping” of small children from their immigrant mothers to create a psychological deterrent bolstered by some out-of-context Bible verses (see here).[1]

It’s about “human rights”—not merely “reproductive rights.”

  1. Unborn children are human beings.

This, of course, is the sticking point.

It is not that my friends who disagree with me on abortion are “moral monsters” who want to murder kids.  The issue is that they differ with me on what constitutes a “human being.”

This is where the conversation must take place, because this is the point on which the whole validity of Roe hinges.

And let’s be honest, if one looks at an embryo shortly after sperm and egg unite, it is not hard to differentiate between that zygote and, say, my one-year-old son.

They look very different.

But the problem is that even if one grants this point, almost all abortions take place after this very early stage.  They take place later, when it is often quite obvious that the unborn child is, indeed, a human life.

With the advent of, say, 3D ultrasound technology, it is now far more difficult to speak of a fetus as “just a lump of tissue.”  Hence many women who are contemplating abortion change their minds upon sight of an ultrasound.

We are talking about babies with heartbeats, some of which can recoil from pain, and some of which can even respond to the sound of their own mother’s voice.

Heartbeat – 3 wks.

Hear sounds – 16 wks.

Recoil from pain – 20 wks.

Roe v. Wade says that killing those babies is permissible. I disagree.

The reason, however, is not because I want to tell women what to do with “their bodies,” but because of a conviction over the baby’s right to live.

  1. Current law is inconsistent.

As it stands now, the dividing line between “human” and “not human” is determined, in some cases, by whether one wants the child. 

And this position is inconsistent with other laws.

Case in point: If a pregnant mother is hit by a drunk driver en route to an abortion clinic, the guilty driver can legally be convicted of the “homicide” (sometimes called “fetal homicide”) of the unborn child.

Yet if the mother arrives safely, the same death of the same fetus is now fully legal.

The problem here is that human rights are not determined merely by the question of whether someone wants you to exist.

And while we may forfeit our rights, say, by committing a crime and going to jail, a fetus has done nothing of the sort.

  1. No one has unfettered rights over “their own” body.

One of the more common arguments in favor of abortion is that a woman ought to be allowed to do what she wants with her own body.  And in many cases, I agree. One of the great values of the #MeToo movement is its reminder of how frequently (and violently) women have been deprived of basic bodily respect.

Yet having said that, no one gets to do whatever they want with their body. No one. That’s actually what laws do—they regulate what you can and cannot do with your physical “self.”

Every law does that: from traffic violations, to burglary, to criminal assault.  You can’t do certain things with your body; and the most basic thing you cannot do is to unduly deprive another “body” of their right to be (See #2).

The mere fact that a baby is inside its mother does not erase the child’s unique humanity (See #3).  The unborn child has her own heartbeat, her own fingerprints, and her own right to go unmolested by others (See #1).

CONCLUSION

Of course, none of the these arguments would eliminate abortion in the extreme case that a mother’s life is in grave danger. Nor do they give Pro-Lifers permission to fight violence with violence.

Many women contemplating abortion have been placed in a terrible position.

Hence Christians especially should be known for responding to all pregnant moms (and indeed all people) with grace and truth.

Nothing hurts the Pro-Life cause more than the sense that its adherents are suspiciously selective in deciding which “lives” deserve love, respect, and hospitality (See this fantastic piece by Karen Swallow Prior).

Still, my argument does mean that Roe v. Wade should go.

If it did, it would not end abortion, but rather throw the decision back to the states (and the people) to decide which persons are worthy of protection.

And for many of us, the decision would be very difficult. Not because the “Ministry of Magic” is fallen—but because we are.

 

 


Notes:

[1] In case it’s not obvious, I’m not equating every violation in that list as equally heinous.

 


 

Like this post? Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

Each newsletter will contain material not available on the blog, including excerpts and info on forthcoming books.

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

Love in the Ruins

Love in the Ruins

No one ever expects the English to be rascals.

That, at least, is the opinion of Dr. Thomas More, the self-confessed “bad Catholic” in Walker Percy’s strange and brilliant novel, Love in the Ruins.

they got rid of God two hundred years ago and became extraordinarily decent to prove they didn’t need him.

Love in the ruins

Regardless of the truth of More’s statement, it is clear that Percy’s novel desires to explore the relationship between belief and obedience; faith and morality; doctrine and ethics in the modern world.

For his own part, Dr. More is afflicted by Christian belief as by a terminal condition—“God, the Jews, Christ, the whole business”—but as he admits:

I love women best, music and science next, whiskey next, God fourth, and my fellowman hardly at all. Generally, I do as I please.

I am a Renaissance pope.

Nevertheless I still believe.

LOVE IN THE RUINS

I read Love in the Ruins early this summer and found it enthralling.

It is a dystopian apocalypse set near New Orleans, after the “Christ-forgetting, Christ-haunted” United States has been pulled apart by tribalism, identity politics, racial tension, and technology gone wrong.

It was published in 1971 but reads as fresh as ever.

The main character (More) is an alcoholic psychiatrist, whose daughter died and whose wife “ran off with a pagan Englishman.”

Like all of Percy’s novels, it is filled with theological insights, and like all good novels it resists cliched conclusions.

Despite the dark setting, the book is frequently hilarious—as when the evangelical (“Knotheads”) throw a patriotic Pro-Am golf tournament on July 4th, complete with a giant banner that reads: “Jesus Christ, the Greatest Pro of Them All!”

I’ll let you read it.

A CRATER OF THE GOSPEL 

For now, my interest in the book has to do with that opening quotation (about the Brits), and with what Jamie Smith speaks of as “craters of the gospel.”

Smith’s point (via Charles Taylor) is that while modern culture is increasingly post-Christian, many “craters” of the gospel’s influence remain—like pockmarked impact-zones upon the surface of the moon.

I’ve noticed something like this even in the moral concerns of avowed atheists like Sam Harris and Dax Shephard, who have almost a hyper-sensitivity for certain ethical issues, despite acknowledging that all such “absolutes” are mere human preferences.

they got rid of God … and became extraordinarily decent to prove they didn’t need him.

Far from ridiculing the moral outrage of such atheists, however, I am grateful for it in some cases—even as I ponder the extent to which they realize they are harvesting from vineyards not their own; “plowing craters” so to speak; without fully understanding that “An enemy did this” (Mt. 13.28).

How long can it last?

What will be the longterm results of such selective “worldview-appropriation”?

Likewise, it seems that many so-called “believers” have more in common with Dr. Tom More than with his post-Reformation namesake — even as we cite prooftexts to justify our “doing as we please.”

Which camp does more damage?

NOT PIGS NOR ANGELS

Regardless of the answers, Percy’s novel is both brilliant and hilarious, even as it holds out hope that when “lust [gives] way to sorrow,” we may realize

It is you [God] that I love in the beauty of the world and in all the lovely girls and dear good friends, and it is pilgrims we are, wayfarers on a journey, and not pigs, nor angels.

Check it out (here), if you need a summer fiction read.

 


Like this post? Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

Each newsletter will contain material not available on the blog, including free excerpts from forthcoming books.

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

 

Beyond outrage

Beyond outrage

It is by now cliche to note that we live in an “outrage culture.”

And there are obvious drivers:

  • partisan politics,
  • social media (see here),
  • the satisfaction I receive from virtue signaling,
  • And (of course) the financial incentives that some have to keep us in a constant state of amygdala agitation.

On that last point, see below for a humorous look at how Facebook in particular makes a fortune this way (warning: some profanity).

 

In light of all this, I’m considering drafting an illustrated children’s book in which tiny, anthropomorphized logos of Twitter, CNN, and Fox News hold a frenzied footrace to the bottom of the brainstem.

Working titles include: “3, 2, 1… Civil War” and “The fast and the furious-er.”

(It will be a sequel to my classic children’s tale on bias: “Everybody skews” [see here].)

THE RIGHT KIND OF OUTRAGE

But there is also another reason for outrage, and we must not forget it.

That is, some things are genuinely outrageous.

Some things are simply wrong.

And if those things fail to bother us, then the problem is not an “outrage culture” or “the social media mob,” but our own callousness, and the fact that our allegiances have been coopted by rival kings and rival kingdoms.

THE PHOTO BY THE WINDOW

Perhaps the ultimate example of such callous compartmentalization is relayed by the British spy, John Weitz (here), who helped liberate the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

Upon approaching the gas chamber where countless families had been slaughtered, Weitz noticed a photograph of young German children taped next to the window that looked in upon the death room.

A Nazi father had apparently taped the photo there, by his “work station,” so he could gaze fondly on his own children while remaining unmoved by the wanton evil being done to “theirs.”

He was a loving dad – no outrage here.

THIS PAST WEEK

So this past week, I added my own voice to thousands of others (Republicans, Democrats, Independents) calling for a halt to using kids as pawns in a dispute regarding immigration—especially by way of out-of-context Bible verses.

Then, to my surprise, something happened: it worked. Kind of.

Public outcry brought a change (Thank God!), albeit an incomplete one since many children remain separated from their parents and there is some question over if and when they will ever be reunited. Apparently the whole process was pretty chaotic [*resists further comment and keeps moving].

Nonetheless, this good change raises an important question:

What next?

What comes after an initial spike in outrage achieves a portion of its goal?

BEYOND OUTRAGE

My interest here is not just with this particular issue (though it is important), but with a “meta-phenomenon” — that is, what outrage does well and what it does more poorly.

Here then is my tentative conclusion:

In some cases, the same traits that are needed in a crisis can be counterproductive to crafting long-term solutions.

I say this because long-term solutions require compromise, listening, and the ability to ratchet down the rhetoric in search of common ground.

Hence the problem is not that outrage is unwarranted, but that it is incomplete on its own. We need more. In the aftermath of crisis, we need to transfer some energy from the amygdala to the other parts of the brain.

We all know this in other areas, I think.

  • The person you want next to you in the Zombie apocalypse may not be the one you want running your company, chairing the school board, or leading your marriage counseling.
  • The skills needed to facedown Hitler may not be the ones that make for a successful peacetime leader (Read a Churchill biography; or a Stalin one).
  • And the recipe for alerting the masses (amygdala!) may not be the same as that required to solve complex problems with the prefrontal cortex.

My fear, however, is that we are far better at the former than the latter — I know I am.

So here’s to wisdom on how to translate righteous zeal into Christian justice, and on how to going beyond outrage to thoughtful long-term solutions.

 


On the subject of immigration reform and border security in particular, I am particularly thankful for the statement set forth recently by my own denomination, The Wesleyan Church (see here).


Like this post? Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter.

Each newsletter will contain material not available on the blog–including excerpts from forthcoming books, videos, and a chance to help craft future content (i.e., make it better) for both print and online publications.

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

 

 

Jeff Sessions and the “Whisky bottle Bible”

Jeff Sessions and the “Whisky bottle Bible”

ON THE DANGER OF MISUSING SCRIPTURE IN PUBLIC

In the words of Miss Maudie, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: 

“Sometimes the Bible in hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of [another].” 

And after the statements yesterday by Jeff Sessions and Sarah Sanders, we see why.

In response to the U.S.A.’s cruel and unnecessary practice of now separating even nursing babies from their undocumented mothers on the southern border, Sessions offered this gem of biblical interpretation:

I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.

Likewise, Sanders said:

I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.

She then claimed that any inability to grasp this “biblical truth” was due to rank stupidity: “I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences, I guess.”

Well, I don’t know if I’m stupid.

But here’s a short sentence: “You’re wrong.”

And I don’t say that as some Lefty shill who opposes all border security [see here]. In fact, my point holds even if you agree with the abhorrent practice of forcing moms and dads to listen to the screams of their young children for no reason other than a kind of psychological torture.

WHAT SCRIPTURE ACTUALLY TEACHES

This post is about the meaning of the passage Sessions cited.

In fact, I happen to teach an entire course on the book from which it comes (Paul’s letter to the Romans), just in case he wants to audit it this fall.

What Romans 13 actually commands is not an obedience to (much less an endorsement of) to all governmental laws.  Rather, its call is that we “be subject” to the ruling authorities by giving “what you owe them.”

If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor (vs. 7).

Yet as Paul’s life shows, what you “owe” Caesar is not carte blanche obedience. That’s idolatry. (Another short sentence.)

In fact, by the implied “Bible-logic” of Sessions and Sanders, Pharaoh’s daughter should have drowned young Moses in the Nile; Israelite exiles should have bowed to the idol of Nebuchadnezzar, and the apostles should have stopped preaching when commanded by the “ruling authorities.”

“Obey the ruling authorities…”

THE “WHISKY BIBLE”

With a nod to “Miss Maudie,” this is precisely the kind of nonsense that results when you start quoting from your “whisky bottle Bible”—i.e., a sacred text that is decontextualized and twisted to affirm a sinful, partisan agenda.

And Romans 13 has a long history of such abuse.

It was used by Hitler and the German Christians; and it was leveraged to justify laws on slavery and segregation.

It bears noting, however, that Paul himself was eventually killed by the government for his annoying refusal to stop proclaiming a greater King named Jesus.

So let me say this in summation of Jeff Sessions’ exegesis: His reading is on par with the claim that “Speed Limit” signs are meant to regulate one’s daily dose of amphetamines.

And it’s not just me who thinks so  – even Franklin Graham, one of the President’s biggest mascots amongst religious leaders, has condemned the policy, calling it “disgraceful” (here).

NOT JUST A TRUMPIST PROBLEM

In truth, however, use of the “whisky Bible” is not unique to one political party—just as the separation of illegal immigrant families seems not to be entirely unique to the current administration, even though the practice has been codified and universalized by it. (Recall the famous picture of undocumented children caged up like dogs during the Obama years.)

All partisans (or rather: all Christians) have a tendency to hijack Scripture to serve our preconceived agendas.

On the Left, this happens (say) when passages on love and inclusion are taken to mean that particular moral absolutes are exchanged for a gospel of warm fuzzies. Or, more likely, when some forget that unborn children don’t deserve to be literally “ripped” from their mothers either.

“Whisky Bibles” come in a variety of flavors. And the tendency is to just play one off against the other. Southern comfort versus, uh…, whatever they drink in California.

Some Christians even swap out their favorite “tipsy” proof-texts depending on who’s in power at the time.

For example, it’s fascinating to see that the same crowd who was just three years ago shouting “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5.29) now cites Romans 13 as a divine endorsement of all governmental policies.

Could any sober person miss the irony?

A CALL TO DEEPER FAITH

One solution to such “drunken” interpretations is for Christians to be more deeply formed by the text we claim to believe. We need more than prooftexts plus a CableNews subscription.

Yet unfortunately, even amongst so-called “evangelicals,” such deep formation by the word of God is actually somewhat rare.

As Alan Jacobs writes (here):

The lesson to be drawn here is this: the great majority of Christians in America who call themselves evangelical are simply not formed by Christian teaching or the Christian scriptures. They are, rather, formed by the media they consume — or, more precisely, by the media that consume them.

The Bible is just too difficult, and when it’s not difficult it is terrifying. So many Christians simply act tribally, and when challenged to offer a Christian justification for their positions typically grope for a Bible verse or two, with no regard for its context or even its explicit meaning.

CONCLUSION

We must do better.

But it will require, in Luther’s words, that our “conscience [be] held captive to the word of God,” rather than the “boozy” whims of ill-informed and partisan prooftexting.

 


Like this post? Signup here to receive (free) bonus content through my “Serpents and Doves Newsletter.”

Each newsletter will contain material not available on the blog–including excerpts from forthcoming books, videos, and a chance to help me craft future content for both print and online publications.

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

American Suicide

American Suicide

Several years ago, there was a mediocre movie made by M. Night Shyamalan, called The Happening.

It was a horror-thriller sort of film, involving hundreds of senseless murders.

Yet the twist in The Happening was that the linked-together killings were committed not by a psychopath or super villain.

They were suicides.

In the movie, some unseen force—in the air or in the water—was causing Americans to self-delete in catastrophic numbers.

And that’s precisely what is happening now–though less dramatically.

AMERICAN HAPPENING

We are in the midst of an American Happening.

And I don’t say that because of Anthony Bourdain (though I was a fan), Kate Spade, or the many other celebrities who have tragically claimed their lives in recent months.

It’s a cold, hard fact–and not just for famous people.

As the New York Times reports (here):

Between 1999 and 2016 [American suicides] increased 25 percent

And

In 2016, there were more than twice as many suicides as homicides.

THE QUESTION THAT NEEDS ASKING

Why?

Depression, yes, but what else accounts for it?

To be honest, I don’t know.  I’m not trained to answer complicated questions on depression, mental health, and shifting trends in sociology.

But come on: 25 percent!?

With the caveat that my knowledge on this topic is very limited, the following are some very tentative thoughts—Not “13 Reasons Why” (though I have written on that previously), but something.

THIRTEEN REASONS WHY

  1. The dark side of “social” media.

It’s not hard to name the biggest social change between 1999 and 2016. It may be the biggest technological shift since electricity: the advent of the internet, and social media.

And despite all its vaunted benefits, for some young people especially, there is no doubt that the smartphone–complete with Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat Apps–has become a suicide machine.  It is a way to compare “my life” to the filtered version of “theirs.” It is a way to get addicted to porn and drown silently in shame.  And for some young people especially, it is a way to bully, retaliate, and take so-called “mean girl” antics to a whole new level.

Is it any wonder, then, that suicides for girls aged 10 to 14 have tripled since 1999?

If there is a lesson here, it is to think carefully about how and when kids are allowed to utilize such “tools”—and about what boundaries we ourselves need (I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone).  

  1. Secularization and the sanctity of life.

In Christian history, the stigma surrounding suicide was massive (and not always helpful).

Given that, it bears reminding that self-murder was not always frowned upon by ancient Greeks or certain Eastern cultures.

In some ways, the shift to secularism is a reversion to pre-Christian ways of thinking. Here, the body (this “meat-suit” as it often [gnostically] referred to) may be done with as one pleases.  It seems unsurprising, then, that suicides would increase.

In the Latin phrase inscribed upon some pagan tombs: Non fui, non sum, non curo. “I was not; I am not; I care not.”

  1. Opioids and other addictions.

The time from 1999 to 2016 is also the period in which opioid addiction went from “problem” to “pandemic.”

And as with all addictions, I imagine feelings of shame and utter helpfulness can lead some to end their lives.  Consider how many of the recent celebrity suicides involved people battling addiction (Bourdain was very open about his past struggles with heroin).

It is all the more shocking then that such dangerous opioids—getting more powerful every year as drug companies rush to outdo one another–are so widely available. 

  1. The aftershocks of war.

For the USA, 1999 to 2016 was also a time of almost non-stop war, even if folks like me (like the vast majority of Americans) were allowed to go blissfully on as if little had changed except the added TSA security.

The soldiers weren’t so lucky.

And in terms of suicides, such conflicts have been decimating.

I spoke to a former Navy SEAL recently who told me he’d lost two friends in a week. “The enemy doesn’t kill us nearly as effectively as we do.”

There are probably many reasons for this: PTSD; traumatic brain injury; lack of brotherhood or sisterhood upon returning home; a public that hardly noticed they were fighting; the inability to win a war against an “idea.”

Whatever the case, we must do a better job of reaching out to veterans; and in thinking carefully before galloping off to wars without sufficient consideration for the human costs both on and off the battlefield.

  1. “Contagion” and crowd dynamics. 

In the words of one parent (here), after a year in which his child’s school endured an unbelievable six(!) teen suicides, there is an element of “contagion” at work with instances of self-harm. As he writes:

Suicide–even those of strangers–poisons the air my young sons breathe. You can’t quarantine it. Every episode of self-deletion compounds our sense of collective despair, making further episodes more likely. I’m watching it happen in my own community.

Malcolm Gladwell sees the same phenomenon at work in school shootings. A generation ago they never happened; yet with each ensuing occurrence the “threshold” lowers till the next becomes almost a foregone conclusion.  In short, it’s tough to close Pandora’s box; The Happening is not just science fiction.

  1. Erasing Hell.

Historically speaking, it is hardly disputable that one reason that some deeply hurting individuals said “No” to suicide was the fear that such an act would consign them to the fires of hell. (It was, for instance, a “mortal sin” in Catholic tradition.)

So while the Bible doesn’t teach this claim explicitly, there is no doubt that an “erasing” of the fear of Hell within modernity has also (for some people) erased a reason to keep living in extreme duress. (And I don’t say that as one who “uses” Hell as a cheap scare-tactic.)

7. Affluenza

One would think that wealth would make us happier and less-prone to suicide. Not so.  As Time Magazine noted (here) in 2012:

all else being equal, suicide risks are higher in wealthier neighborhoods, a morbid demonstration of the folly of trying to “keep up with the Joneses.”

As one might expect, they are also high in times of unemployment, yet an additional

twist comes when you look at low income individuals who live in high income areas. According to the study, they face greater suicide risk than those living in low-income areas. The study’s authors call it a “behavioral response to unfavorable interpersonal income comparisons.”

  1. “The satan”

Even in Christian circles, to bring up the devil is something you don’t do at dinner parties.

“Old Scratch” is, as Walter Wink puts it: “a scandal” and “a bone in the throat of modernity” (See here for a prior post on the topic).

It bears noting, however, that the Hebrew word for Satan (ha satan) is not a name, but a title and a job description: “The accuser.”

“The satan” is the one who—often through a nagging inner voice—brings accusations:

“You’re worthless. Everyone would be better off if you weren’t here.”

And like every other factor on this numbered list, such “reasons” are ultimately bad ones—even while they can seem crushing.

So whether you believe in the devil or not, it’s imperative that you stop listening to him.

CONCLUSION 

In the end, I don’t know all the reasons for this American Happening. And many more could undoubtedly be listed.

But I do know this: we need you.

So if you’re struggling with depression or suicidal ideations, I hope you’ll tell someone (email me if nothing else), cause it’s time this mediocre movie got a whole lot better.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255


 

The title for this post was taken from Rod Dreher’s recent discussion of the topic (see here).