Thou shalt not Cable News?

Thou shalt not Cable News?

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax is asking whether Christians should consider “pulling the plug” on an increasingly unsanctified form of television entertainment.

No, it’s not the racy or gratuitously violent scenes on “Skinamax” or other channels— it’s cable news.

Cable News

Here’s the money quote:

In a culture that has lost its appetite for truth and has developed an appetite for coarseness and sensationalism, cable news plays to our worst tendencies.

(Read the full thing here.)

 

Like me, Wax admits to having once been a bit of a “political junkie.” But as he puts it, “Election 2016 changed that.”

It wasn’t because, this time around, I was unable to enthusiastically support either candidate. It was a growing concern with the toxic atmosphere of the cable news channels and the worrisome trends they reveal about our society.

He then gives three reasons why the rise of niche-market news channels–tailor made to heighten our existing biases–have had cancerous effects.

Here they are:

  1. The Disappearing Aim of Journalism

While absolutely no one is unbiased, the claim here is that today’s cable news outlets (whether Fox News, CNN, or MSBC) aren’t even trying.

The aim is no longer truth or journalism; it’s ratings via sensationalized pandering to a specific demographic. For proof, one need only recall the admission of a CNN producer that the Russia scandal was “great for ratings.”

  1. The Disappearing Desire for Truth

Worse yet, many viewers do not seem to care.  We tune in for validation, not objectivity, and the media on both sides plays the music to our band.

  1. The Rise of News as Show

Wax’s third claim is that the line between news and entertainment has all but vanished.  What we have now are “shows,” or rather: “food fight journalism,” dished out by the likes of Hannity, Maddow, and (formerly) O’Reilly.

On this point, Wax gives a telling example from the life of Roger Ailes, Fox News founder and longtime Harvey Weinstein impersonator:

Ailes knew what types he wanted on that show: the “bombshell blonde,” the middle-of-the-road guy, the renegade, the brunette, and the token liberal (white or black) to round out the panel. When casting the show, he made it clear to the panelists that they were replaceable precisely because they were typecast.

In the end, such typecast replicability also led, by all accounts, to a newsroom that made Ron Burgundy’s look like a paragon of gender equality and female respect. The non-disclosure agreements were stacked like papal indulgences.

WAIT A MINUTE

But wait a minute… is all this an exageration?

Despite such strong indictments, Wax doesn’t want to go too far.

As he notes, moments of real journalism do sneak through on the cable channels.  And in moments of crisis, like the recent hurricanes, we are thankful to be “inspired by the stories of individual families, of daring rescues, and the ongoing relief efforts.”

Cable news is not all bad; not all options are equally biased; and simply tuning out to world events does not seem like a great alternative.

Perhaps one possibility then is to step away from cable–millennials like myself have long since done this (what are channels?)–and get our news from a variety of other sources.

The best of these may even involve (wait for it…) reading. While this would hardly free us from the grip of bias, the choice to read our news from more reputable sources would eliminate the endless food fights (read: panel discussions), engineered by Ailes and others. It would also prevent the binge-newsing that fuels an obsessive and over-politicized paranoia.

In the recent words of David Brooks:

[Our] public conversation is over-politicised and under-moralised … we analyse every single movement in the polls, but the big subjects about relationships and mercy and how to be a friend – these are the big subjects of life and we don’t talk about them enough. Or we have our moral arguments through political means, which is a nasty way to do it because then you make politics into a culture war.

A PROBLEM ON BOTH SIDES

As Wax makes clear, the problem exists on both the Right and Left.

In this, we have yet another example of how both extremes within our current culture wars are locked in a symbiotic existence that is simultaneously a carnal embrace.

They need each other; they are producing offspring (“As even your own poets claim”); and they ought to be in each other’s Christmas cards.

In the end, the greatest danger is what such WWE-inspired journalism does to us.

It changes us in subtle ways.  And it leaves us drawn (perhaps subconsciously) toward leaders with these qualities.

We form our media; then our media form us.

Before we know it, one might even feel “strangely warmed” toward a figure whose philosophical and rhetorical inspirations seem like an odd amalgam of Gordon Gecko and Ric Flair.  Hypothetically.

BEYOND LEGALISM

After reading Wax, my own takeaway was not a legalistic command along the lines of “Thou shalt not cable news.”

In all honesty, my own tradition has sometimes erred in this direction. My grandparents tell an old story of unloading the family moving van at a new church parsonage, only to be asked brusquely by a church elder:

“Do you own a television?”

“No,” replied my grandfather.

“Good; we throw those in the river!”

Neither Wax nor I are advocating this.

Even so, perhaps evangelicals would do well to recognize that “sex and cussing” are not the only forms of television viewing that can malform us when it comes to holiness.

Oh be careful little eyes…

We are Seven: On counting miscarriage

We are Seven: On counting miscarriage

“How many children do you have?”

That was the seemingly innocuous question that I asked my new acquaintance as we sat around the chips and salsa at our local Chili’s.

Like most parents, he answered with a number. Then he said the part that I had not expected:

“We had two miscarriages. And we always count those.”

While I responded with empathy, I recall thinking that most of us (myself included) do not publically number our children to include the little lives that never made it to delivery.

And on many levels, that is understandable.

We all deal with grief differently.  And it would be wrong to force one way of processing a failed pregnancy on others.

OUR MISCARRIAGE

About a year and a half ago Brianna and I walked through our own experience of miscarriage. And while it was sad for me, at the time, I was primarily concerned for her well-being.

After hearing a noise in our house, I came into our bedroom to find Brianna unconsciousness from blood loss.  I panicked.  Then I phoned my mom to watch our kids; I carried Brianna’s (now) semi-conscious body to the car, did my best to place her inside, and then drove us to the hospital.

Thankfully, she was soon okay.

But the baby had been deceased for several days.

Later, as some readers can relate, there was the awkward reality of having already told some folks that we were pregnant, and now having to explain.  Partly because of this, Brianna chose to share publically that she had lost a pregnancy.  And soon after, she was overwhelmed by the many friends and family who then confided their own stories–some far more traumatic than our own.

It happens often.  But that doesn’t make it nothing.

CONSISTENTLY PRO-LIFE

In Christian circles, one hears much about the need to be “Pro-Life,” and rightly so.

While the issue of abortion is polarizing, my own view leans on both Scripture and science to conclude that an unborn child is indeed a sacred human life, however small.

Even so, the consistent application of my “Pro-Life” stance involves much more than just abortion. It is a virtue that spans from womb to tomb, and sweeps up everything from welfare to warfare within its complicated wake.

I aim to be consistently Pro-Life.

Yet this too raises questions as to how I “count” our miscarriage.

WORDSWORTH OVER CHIPS AND SALSA

In a slightly different vein, something like my Chili’s conversation also happens in a classic poem by William Wordsworth (“We Are Seven”; pub. 1798).

Its verses recount an exchange between a traveler and a simple peasant girl.

The traveler asks:

“Sisters and brothers, little Maid, / How many may you be?”

“How many? Seven in all,” she said, / And wondering looked at me.

“And where are they? I pray you tell.” / She answered, “Seven are we; / And two of us at Conway dwell, / And two are gone to sea.

“Two of us in the church-yard lie, / My sister and my brother; / And, in the church-yard cottage, I / Dwell near them with my mother.”

Yet this statement brings confusion to the traveler: “I thought that you said seven.”

“You say that two at Conway dwell, / And two are gone to sea, / Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell, / Sweet Maid, how this may be.”

The misunderstanding, of course, involves the girl’s counting of her two dead siblings (“who in the church-yard lie”) as present members of her family.

Unfortunately, the mathematical modern adult doesn’t get it:

“You run about, my little Maid, / Your limbs they are alive; / If two are in the church-yard laid, / Then ye are only five.”

WE ARE SEVEN

As I read the poem recently (outside, on a nice morning, as is legally required of Wordsworth), it struck me that perhaps the number “seven” reflects our family too.

For if I were to begin consciously “counting” the child that we lost to miscarriage, then we would indeed be Seven. –(1) Brianna, (2) Josh, (3) Lucy, (4) Penny, (5) Ewan, (6) Baby unnamed, (7) Teddy.

And while I have no plans to begin saying this whenever someone asks about my children, perhaps it is a more consistent conclusion for those of us who consider ourselves “Pro-Life.”

After all, the weight of Wordsworth’s poem lies in the child’s stubborn insistence that death does not erase a child from the family roll.

To live at all is to be woven forever into the fabric of “present personhood.” We are eternal.

For to use Donne’s metaphor, “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume.” And while death is powerful and grievous, it cannot tear out words and pages from this book.  It can only translate them–if they be written in Christ’s blood–“into a better language.”

The trouble, however—as my two-year-old reminds me daily—is that children learn new “languages” far easier than grown-ups.

Thus even our ostensibly “Christian” thinking about miscarriage can often leave us thinking as only slightly more cordial versions of Wordsworth’s adult traveler, in need of child-like wisdom:

“How many are you, then,” said I, / “If they two are in heaven?” / Quick was the little Maid’s reply, / “O Master! we are seven.”

“But they are dead; those two are dead! / Their spirits are in heaven!” / ’Twas throwing words away; for still / The little Maid would have her will, / And said, “Nay, we are seven!

 

On Protests

On Protests

In recent weeks, social media has been ablaze with opinions over what does or does not constitute an “appropriate” protest.

This piece, however, is about a much older controversy.

Exactly five hundred years ago (this month) an act of dissent began that was far more incendiary than a few athletes kneeling for an anthem.

In the heart of Germany, a young monk named Martinus Ludher (Martin Luther) felt compelled to speak out against the abuses of his church—and particularly, against the unjust selling of indulgences.

Yet while many celebrate Luther’s legacy this year, it bears noting that he was hardly a hero to many at the time.

Protests, it seems, can be variously interpreted.

MEDIEVAL MEMEs

Thanks to J. Gutenberg’s 15th century invention of “social media,” one can still access a plethora of medieval memes depicting the Reformer in all manner of unflattering ways.

There was Luther as the beast of Revelation; Luther as the devil’s bagpipe (below); and Luther as a sex-crazed infidel who wanted only to satisfy his lust and break his vow of celibacy.

Lutherdevil

Like and share if you agree!!! –proclaimed the Hapsburg troll farms.

On the other side, the pope was also lampooned in a variety of viral .gifs, er… pamphlets.

The holy father was here depicted as a bare-breasted dragon with the head of an ass; and  as a decrepit pseudo-Jew riding a pig while holding a pile of steaming excrement.

Popeonsow
In the period, Jews were often erroneously slurred as riding pigs.

Apparently, the poop emoji is hardly new.

Nor, sadly, is anti-Semitism.

IMPERIAL REBUKE

In response to Luther’s protest, the Holy Roman Emperor himself decided to weigh in.  And in 1521, at the Diet of Worms (not a .gif), Charles V pronounced a somber “SAD!” over the idea of justification by faith alone.

Oddly, however, the interjection of a world leader only fueled the fire.

Luther’s protest spread.

BLOOD AND SWORD

In the wake of such polarization, one might hope that the following decades would bring a return to civility between the factions—both claiming to be Christians.

It did not.

So while the fruit of the Reformation is now seen in ideas like sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura (grace alone; faith alone; Scripture alone)—the more immediate fruit was  the Thirty Years War: the deadliest religious conflict in European history.

Many cite this bloodshed today as a reason why Europe became aggressively post-Christian in the years to follow.  The idea was that strong theological commitments invariably bring bloodshed.  And while the twentieth century would show that atheists can wage jihad even more effectively (#Marxism), the damage was done.

WORTH THE TROUBLE?

So was Luther’s protest worth it?

I think it was–although I don’t agree with all his tactics.

As a Protestant myself (though one with great respect for Catholicism, and for my Catholic brothers and sisters), I tend to think that the Reformation was necessary, not least because the gospel badly needed a retrieval from the tentacles of medieval tradition.

Even so, Martin Luther was a terribly imperfect activist.

IMPERFECT ACTIVIST

Believing that all his adversaries were literally in league with Satan, Luther often chose the most profane words and images imaginable.  (I’ll let you Google it.)

He had seemingly never met an ad hominem—or a reference to the human G.I. tract—that he disliked, and he shared more than his share of “fake news” stories, especially against the Jews.

His treatment of “law” and “gospel” sometimes verged toward anti-nomianism.  And his anti-Semitism made the Holocaust more possible in modern Germany (though most of the blame for this lies elsewhere).

Partly to shore up political connections, he once commanded that the “murderous, thieving hordes of peasants” be slaughtered in the most inhumane of terms.  And while some of these peasants were indeed both murderous and thieving (see Münster), others were just poor farmers who had been frightfully oppressed by local lords.

Apparently revolts against an over-taxing monarchy can also be variously interpreted.

LESSONS LEARNED

What then is the point of this history lesson?

To be sure, every act of protest is unique–as is every “protestant.”

Thus it would be wrong to equate any of them, just as it would be wrong to declare every protest praiseworthy. Some are not.

Even so, we fool ourselves if we think that any act of dissent was ever deemed “appropriate” at the time.  That’s just not how it works.

Just ask the other Martin Luther. In 1966, Gallup registered MLK’s disapproval rating at 63%, while only 32% of Americans approved of him. Yet in 1999, MLK ranked #1 amongst U.S. citizens to be voted on.

Apparently it takes more than flash polls or “gut feelings” to discern morality.

And perhaps in one instance, it took a chronically cussing and perpetually constipated monk to get a needed conversation going.

Happy (early) Reformation Day.

Coyote America

Coyote America

In the Latino communities of the American southwest, there is a saying:

            The only thing smarter than a coyote is God.

And while we car-driving, blog-writing humans may take issue with this claim, just ask yourself this question:

How many coyotes have you seen holding fidget spinners?

I sat rapt recently as I listened to the nature historian Dan Flores talk about his recent book: Coyote America. 

It is essentially a biography of America’s most adaptive underdog.

And it is also a strange topic for a blog on faith and culture.

So we should probably address that weirdness.

A DEFICIT OF AWE

You may not know it, but coyotes are not exactly “click-generators” in the world of social media. They do not wear bikinis; they have no thoughts on Donald Trump; and (unlike cats) they do not appear on Youtube playing the piano. (I checked.)

So why write about them?

Two words: unexpected awe.

While there are many problems in the modern world, among the least acknowledged may be our loss of wonder.  Despite all our technological marvels, most of us are far too rarely dazzled.

So while we are awash with entertainment, we have a deficit of awe.

And from this evil Amazon.com cannot deliver us.

This state of disenchantment presents a problem for the church, because a capacity for wonder may be a prerequisite for what Calvin called the sensus divinitatis—our sense of the divine.

INTO THE WILD

In the Bible, such awe comes often out-of-doors–though not exclusively.

It presents itself in burning bushes; in stars that mark descendants; and in a grappling angel by a brook.

In such wild places, our sense of wonder is refreshed.

And this brings us back to the coyote.

ETERNAL UNDERDOG

While Flores’ book starts in prehistoric times, its most interesting parts reveal how the coyote flourished while other species were decimated by the settling of the American West–a period that brought perhaps the swiftest destruction of wildlife in world history.

Yet despite an all-out war on coyotes starting around 1915, the only noticeable result has been that they continue to spread like wildfire.

While first inhabiting only a portion of North America, the animals now stretch from beyond the arctic circle down into South America.  And what’s more, they now inhabit every major city in the United States.

The reason for their flourishing has something to do with what the apostle Paul identified as “power perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12.9).

Because coyotes adapted as the smaller, frailer cousin of the wolf, they could not rely on brute force to stay alive.  Instead, they had to lean into their wits and learn to leverage weakness.

Case in point: their use of howls and hormones.

COYOTE TINDER

According to Flores, when the female coyote howls (or yips) each night, one purpose is to take the roll of the respective mates within her group.

If a male does not respond—say, because he was trapped or shot or mauled—it triggers a chemical reaction within the alpha female that does two things, both of which are awe-inducing:

First, it sends her prematurely into heat; and second, it causes the ensuing litter to be larger than normal.

You might want to read that again. The mere absence of an answering “yip” both triggers heat and makes the litter larger than they would be otherwise.

Most likely, this adaptation emerged from a history of weakness and inferiority in the face of larger predators. Yet somehow, this tendency to get killed-off by bigger animals coincided with a freakish adaptation that gave coyotes an advantage.

Example number two:

FRAGILE PACKS 

While wolves tend to stay almost perpetually in tight-knit groups, coyotes are what Flores calls a “fragile pack” animal. This means that when they face pressure from their enemies, they tend to splinter into smaller groups and then cast about in search of new territory.

Because grey wolves group more rigidly, the killing of a single wolf often leads to the killing of the entire pack—sometimes aided by the use of the original hide as a way to lure others to an ambush. For such reasons, wolves were almost eliminated from the American West, while coyotes spread rapidly in all directions.

“They tried to scatter us,” you can almost hear them howling, “They didn’t realize we were seeds” (cf. D. Christianopoulos).

RESISTING APPLICATION

Okay, okay… so coyotes have some crazy adaptations that have led to flourishing – but what do we do with this?

The tendency, for preachers like myself, would be a move to application: something like, The Coyote Principle (Now available for $12.99!).

After all, the book of Proverbs tells us to “Consider the ant” in order to be wise. And if Solomon were relocated to the Sierra Madres, perhaps the text would read “Consider the coyote.”

To be sure, there are lessons to be gained from such creaturely longevity.

For instance:

  1. Weakness does not have to be a weakness. And:
  2. Scattering can be a form of conquest.

Yet the too-quick drive to application can be a fault of teachers like myself. And in some cases it borders on a sacrilege–what Kierkegaard called “pillaging the holy.”

Because while we may benefit from life-lessons, sometimes we have a deeper need to marvel merely at the wonders made by the Creator.

As Donald Miller writes in Through Painted Deserts:

I sometimes look into the endless heavens, the cosmos of which we can’t find the edge, and ask God what it means. Did You really do all this to dazzle us? 

In sum: application is no substitute for awe.

THAT SUCH THINGS SHOULD BE

A related point is made beautifully in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

In one scene, two ragged “okie” boys slide into a roadside gas station as their family migrates west in search of food and better fortunes. In patched overalls and dirt-streaked faces, the children halt suddenly before the candy case. There they stared

not with craving or with hope or even with desire but just with a kind of wonder that such things should be.

Perhaps this tells us something of how Christians ought to look at nature, at coyotes, at oceans, at eclipses, and even at our fellow man—not with craving or with quests for application, but with naked wonder that such things should be.

The LORD was (not) in the storm

The LORD was (not) in the storm

It can seem a cruel twist that hurricanes are called “acts of God.”

Yet it is crueler still when the label is confirmed by careless statements from both televangelists and secular celebrities alike (This sentence may contain redundancies).

Recently, the actress Jennifer Lawrence remarked (omnisciently) that the devastating hurricanes assailing Texas and Florida are Mother Nature’s “wrath” toward a nation that elected Donald Trump.

And while conservatives rightly decried the “word of knowledge,” it bears reminding that certain fundamentalists have long been making similar pronouncements. Pat Robertson blamed Haiti’s earthquake on their “pact with the devil”; Jerry Falwell attributed 9/11 to “gays and lesbians”; and John Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on the wickedness of New Orleans.

Why do people do this?

The problem, it seems, is not exclusively a liberal or a conservative one, but a tendency of human nature.

Despite our talk of grace, we often find karma more appealing.

There is something comforting about rendering disaster meaningful as retribution.  Retribution implies simplistic telos—and telos gives us consolation.  After all, it is always “the other side” that is to blame.

WERE THEY WORSE SINNERS?

Jesus faced this fallacy as well.

In Luke 13, Christ is approached by the ideological ancestors of “Katniss,” Hagee, and Robertson.  A tower had fallen in Siloam and there were casualties.  The natural assumption was therefore that the event was God’s judgment on the victims’ egregious sins.

But Jesus isn’t buying it.

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!” (Lk. 13.2–3).

The problem, it seems, is not with the notion that God sometimes judges sin dramatically; scripture says he does. Rather, the fault lies in the presumption that one can easily peer behind the veil to parse out when and how this happens.

When we do this, our statements usually become a kind “Rorschach test for prophets”—telling a lot about the speaker, but virtually nothing about Ultimate Reality.

When this happens, whether with J-Law or Pat Robertson, we often end up with a “God” who conveniently hates all the people we do.  And this move manages (impressively) to break both the first and second commandments simultaneously: we kick God off the throne of judgment (#1), and we remake him in our camera-ready image (#2).

For such reasons, the majority of Christians–not to mention past Hunger Games champions–resist the urge to openly attribute hurricanes to divine anger at specific targets.

THE HARDER QUESTION

Yet this hardly quells the questions posed by such disasters.

Especially to theists.

Case in point:

A few years ago, I was introduced to a new colleague of mine, named Mark. In telling me about his life and family, he mentioned that his boy had been struck and killed by lightning.

While the conversation continued, I did not.  I had recently become a first-time father myself; and my question was a blunt one:

Could I be Christian after that?

REDEFINING “ACTS OF GOD”

Are such terrible events really, as the insurance papers tell us, “Acts of God”?

One strand of Christianity says “Yes.”

While “Deism” views God as entirely detached from earthly affairs, “divine determinism” claims that every creaturely occurrence has as its cause God’s active will.

As David Bentley Hart explains it, in his excellent response to the southeast Asian tsunami (The Doors of the Sea):

Some theologians – Calvin, for instance – have denied that the distinction between what God wills and what he permits has any meaning at all.

Yet Hart finds this “unhealthy fascination” with God’s “dread sovereignty” unacceptable.

Thus he resists the urge to attribute every lightning strike on a suburban soccer field, every Indonesian child drowned in a tsunami, and every flattened Caribbean village to a simplistic “act of God.”

As he concludes:

It is a strange thing to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.

What though is the alternative?

THE LORD IN THE STORM

Between Deism and determinism lies the majority Christian position—and it is one that I share as a Wesleyan theologian.

God sometimes permits terrible disasters. We don’t know why entirely. (Perhaps grasping for the “knowledge of good and evil” is as troublesome now as it was in Eden.) Yet we trust that God is present in the suffering. Jesus proves this.

The claim here is that while the LORD is in the storm, he is not there as a sadistic force of retribution against the afflicted—much less his people.

Hart says it this way:

I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean [or elsewhere] and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.

For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy.

CONCLUSION

The point here is that Christians should resist naming horrific natural disasters as “acts of God,” just as we should resist the urge to blame them on whatever persons we find disagreeable.

When we fall victim to such errors we are more likely to be distracted from the final way that God is in the storm—not as a vindictive force of carnage, but as a healing presence in the hands and feet of his people.

In the end, the LORD is in the storm most palpably when we stop blaming long enough to pray and give and help.


For those interested in giving to those affected by Harvey and Irma, here is an organization that I trust (World Hope – Texas/Harvey). (World Hope – Irma Relief).

We need Winsome Persuasion

We need Winsome Persuasion

Some thoughts on beating bullhorns into plowshares

Sometimes it pays to judge a book by its cover.

Especially if it’s as beautiful and brilliant as that of Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (by Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer of Biola).

image1
Cover Design: David Fassett; IVP Academic

The central image is of an upturned bullhorn that been strangely “botanized.”  The bell is now a base for flowers; and beauty grows in place of screaching words.

The idea reminds me of Isaiah 2.

In this famous passage, we are promised that, one day, warring nations will beat their “swords” into eternal “plowshares,” and their “spears into pruning hooks” (2.4).

And while that seems a long way off with regard to weaponry, it seems even longer with regard to words.

THE PREMISE

The book tackles the thorny question of how Christians should speak into a world that is marked increasingly by incivility.  (Do I really need to argue this!?)

On social media especially, Deborah Tannen claims that we now inhabit an “Argument culture” that goads us to approach others in a combative frame of mind.

What’s more, Christians (like others) have often stoked these fires through the unfortunate reality of “online dis-inhibition”—the phenomenon that leaves us unrestrained by face-to-face conventions.

(I know, it happened to me once.  Okay, twice.)

So what do we do?

While I can’t speak (yet) for the whole of the book, the most helpful facet thus far involves the authors’ three-fold breakdown Christian communication:

  1. Prophetic
  2. Pastoral
  3. Persuasive

Some definitions:

  1. PROPHETIC COMMUNICATION

The prophetic voice is often used as justification when we decide to “Tee off” on a particular issue. The justification is found in Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, who sometimes use strong language to call forth repentance from God’s people (“You brood of vipers!”). Such language has its place.

But according to Winsome Persuasion, the “prophetic voice” is almost entirely ineffective when used on those who do not share our foundational presuppositions.  It can rally the base, but to outsiders we merely sound like “bullies with bullhorns.”

In such cases: “Inflammatory rhetoric [breeds] inflammatory responses”—and the cycle continues.

This does not mean, of course, that prophetic speech is useless; but it does call for discernment regarding when it helps, and when it actually makes things worse.

If the danger of “cowardly silence” sits on one side, then the danger of “clanging gongs” sits on the other.

  1. PASTORAL COMMUNICATION

Second, the pastoral voice “appeals to the shared needs and suffering” of others, and it “offers healing … to those in need.”  In such ways, it is crucial in showing others that they are loved.

Yet while pastoral communication lays a relational foundation for transformation, it does not have the power to change minds on specific issues.

It comforts but it rarely converts.

This brings us to the title.

  1. PERSUASIVE COMMUNICATION

According to the authors, the persuasive voice “appeals to the common good and general revelation” while also seeking to “change viewpoints or practices within the culture.”

It is the practice of a “counterpublic”–a minority culture that nonetheless desires to influence dominant perspectives in order to bring about positive change.

And to do this, civility is key.

In this way, persuasive speech refuses to live in denial about the fact that the culture no longer shares “my” Christian presuppositions.  We’re not in Mayberry.  Thus what is needed is not simply more volume but rather an appeal to conscience and more broadly shared values.

In this way, winsome persuasion does not cede the public square; but it moves to “botanize the bullhorn” so that it produces more than thorns and thistles.

THE PROBLEM

The trouble (at least for me) is that such persuasion is difficult; it sometimes results in the communicator fielding fire from both sides; and it’s not as fun as ranting.

Likewise, for some of us (including me), winsome persuasion may require a fundamental change in posture.

Flashback: From a young age, it was quite clear that I would never be good at fighting with my fists.  My junior high football roster listed me—quite accurately—at a whopping 87 lbs.  Even so, it was clear that I had a knack for removing the “blade” from verbal plowshares to serve more sword-like purposes. I was quick with comebacks, snark, and sarcasm. And while that has its uses, it can also cause some problems.

Along such lines, a central claim of Muehlhoff and Langer is that today’s Christians have often chosen “prophetic” language in contexts that would be better served by “persuasive” speech.

“Clearly we have spoken up; the problem seems to be that we have spoken poorly.”

As Vaclav Havel wrote:

There is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly.

I agree.

And one might even mount a biblical case for this conclusion.

THE BIBLICAL CASE 

In Scripture, the juxtaposition of prophetic and persuasive rhetoric is modeled in a variety of contexts.

Note, for instance, the difference in how Christ speaks to the (ostensibly) Jewish Herod Antipas (“that fox!”) and the way he speaks to Pontius Pilate.

Or note the difference between the way Paul speaks to the pagans of Mars Hill (Acts 17) and the way he speaks to the Judaizers of Galatians (“Hey guys, why stop with circumcision…!?  [5.12; my translation]).

There are exceptions, of course, but not as many as one might guess. (Let’s be honest, do we really want to make Elijah’s interaction with the Baal-boys our normative exemplar? It ends with mass execution.)

In the new covenant, Peter calls for the church to make its case to the pagan world “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3.15).

Because while prophetic speech has its place in certain circumstances, I appreciate the call to consider more winsome ways—and to beat some bullhorns into plowshares.

 


Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University; Richard Langer is professor of biblical of biblical and theological studies at Talbot School of Theology

(If you’re in the book, see here.)

 

The Eclipse of Evangelicalism?

The Eclipse of Evangelicalism?

Just in time for today’s solar eclipse, David Drury (of Wesleyan HQ) has written a pointed piece on what he terms “The Eclipse of Evangelicalism.”

His claim is that, as a movement, evangelicals have seen their core convictions eclipsed by other aims and ends; hence he even argues that, as a movement, evangelicalism is “dead.”

While I don’t have time for a full critique here, I appreciate the call to repentance and a reclaiming of our core-convictions.

While “dead” may seem too-strong a word to many; I’m glad that Resurrection is even stronger.

Here it is.


The Eclipse of Evangelicalism

Repentance Upon the Death of a Movement 

By David Drury

As of this day, August 21, 2017, I believe that the evangelical movement is dead. At least, it appears to be dead. As a movement, evangelicalism is no longer effective in its original aims in the West. The movement has shirked its persistent values, and has quit practicing the core convictions that made it relevant and necessary. Even if evangelicals still claim to believe the core values, they do not practice them. Evangelicalism still exists as a category of people today—but it no longer is an actual movement in the kingdom of God.

Today Americans gather to watch one of the most unique sights the skies produce: a total eclipse. The moon is passing directly between the earth and the sun, blocking its rays, but for a corona of subtle light exuding from the dark circle, a faint reminder that the sun is still there, obscured for a time. Visible from coast to coast, the eclipse shown on a map looks like an arcing brush stroke swept from Oregon to South Carolina. The last time the sun was eclipsed like this (what they call a “totality”) in America was June 8, 1918. Much has changed in the 99 years since the last total eclipse, particularly for evangelicals.

In the last century, but particularly in the last decade or two, the core of what it means to be evangelical has been eclipsed by other priorities. The shining truths have been obscured by other moons, which have come between evangelicals and their core identity. In the process of this eclipse, a darkness has come across the land of evangelicalism, and even though it happened slowly, it has happened surely to this day, where a near totality has been reached.

Evangelicalism has a long history that can be told in a variety of ways. Finding its source in revivals and awakenings as well as Methodism and pietism. Whitefield and Wesley, Ockenga and Graham, Finney and Stott, Edwards and von Zinzendorf: they all could be seen, in their own way, as founders from different eras of the evangelical movement. Most agree that evangelicalism, as a movement, reflected a core set of values, which were…

  1. Conversion-oriented
  2. Bible-following
  3. Cross-focused
  4. Culture-transforming

These are the classic four core values affirmed by many in evangelicalism, including the National Association of Evangelicals.

Let’s examine each of these characteristics of evangelicalism and how they have been eclipsed:

Conversion-oriented                                                                                      

Evangelicals not only believed but behaved in a way that being “born-again by the transforming work of Jesus Christ” was critical. They shared their love of Christ to others and people “came to Jesus.” Was it messy? Yes. Did it all add up like a theology text-book? No. But because of this passion for conversion millions entered into a life-long process of following Jesus in fits and starts. This meant that disciples were called out to “follow me” and enter discipleship.

Today the conversion-oriented activity of evangelicals has now been eclipsed by the love of entertainment.

Bible-following – More than merely Bible-believing, evangelicals were a Bible-living sort of people. They followed the Bible and obeyed its teachings. They gave scripture a higher authority over any other source. Some might have valued reason, tradition, and experience, but even those critical elements were subject to the witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ found in the Bible. The pietistic, revivalist, and holiness streams of evangelicalism ensured that the people called evangelical were not just evangelistic, but also discipled to live differently by obedience to this gospel.

Today the Bible-following lifestyle of evangelicals has been eclipsed by the love of self.

Cross-focused – Core to being an evangelical was a cross-focused way of life. The evangelical was living by the mantra: Christ has done it on the cross. The evangelical was all about the forgiveness attainable by the sacrifice of the perfect God-man on the cross, making possible the redemption of all humanity. Evangelicalism believed in the incarnation, the teaching of Jesus, the miracles, the resurrection, and the ascension, and return of Christ—but central to it all was the crucifixion as the event and doorway into the rest of its three values. This brought the movement a potency and clarity in focus where all things began and ended with Jesus.

Today the cross-focused nature of evangelicals has been eclipsed by the love of power.

Culture-transforming – Evangelicalism was missionary and activist in an inter-dependent manner. Evangelicals cared about the souls living down the street and around the world, so they sought to share the gospel with them in innovative ways, and advocated for changes in the economy and government in a way that would help those who were voiceless or oppressed. Abolitionists, suffragists, and pro-lifers all found a home in this paradigm. To a lesser extent, the civil rights movement found a home in this paradigm as well (although largely in the Black Evangelical church, more on that later). They all sought to see people come to Christ worldwide and to, as a result, transform entire societies as the holy witness of Jesus spread across the land.

Today the culture-transforming mission of evangelicals has been eclipsed by the love of money.

You might see the a theme evident in the phrasing above, but one of the things that has had a frog-in-the-kettle effect for this change in evangelicalism is that long ago we stopped actively measuring the actual activity attached to these values, and instead merely treated them as beliefs one would check off like a creed. Evangelicals were decidedly not a creed-oriented people, so this is out of character, but these four values became something to help us discover the answer to the question: “who is an evangelical?”

Surveys began to ask questions discerning how much someone believed statements like: “the Bible is the highest authority for what I believe,” or: “only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.” It is quite difficult to measure the actual behavior of people, and easier to do a survey of what they say they believe. Further, it may be important for younger readers who have come of age during a partial eclipse of evangelicalism, that evangelicals of days gone by didn’t just say they believed these things, they actually lived differently than their non-evangelical neighbors because of them.

Some have attempted to redefine evangelicals or categorize them to make a distinction for those who actually go to church, or engage in other practices. These attempts are noble, but have for the most part shown disappointing trends all the same.

I say “we” in the next sections because I am part of the problem I will outline. I repent of each of these choices, for I have my part in them, particularly since I am a leader in a denomination, and have responsibility for not only my own actions but for the behavior of my people. I am convicted in each of these areas, and write them through tears, grieving for the eclipse of one of the most important and Christ-honoring movements in the history of Christianity.

The Eclipse of Conversion by Entertainment

We choose entertainment over evangelism every day of our lives. We evangelicals care more deeply about the characters on our favorite Netflix show than the neighbors in the homes next to us. We value news as entertaining commentary and conflict more than the world full of those who need Jesus. We choose to value attendance at our churches far more than conversions in our services, much less in our conversations. We have even ceded the worship of God over to an entertainment-driven cycle, one where our Church teams and staffs are continually required to top what they did last week to continue to attract us and entertain us as the “audience.” Our churches accidentally become a part of the menu of Sunday entertainment choices the suburbs have before them, where people wonder: “should I exercise, watch news shows or football, sleep in, take the kids to soccer practice, mow the lawn, or go to Church today?” This is all propagated by an evangelical culture that chooses to feed off the entertaining rush that comes through mostly socio-political conflict with strangers, and even our friends, in comment sections and social media. We care little for the souls of these people we interact with—we demonstrate that we only care that our ideas win the argument, and that we look smarter than our opponents while doing so. We need lessons in civility at a 101 level, to say nothing for the lack of holiness displayed. We no longer love our enemies for the sake of the gospel, we don’t even build bridges our friends if they disagree with us. Evangelicals have “un-friended” the world in the process, as if the gospel of Jesus Christ and possible conversion of these acquaintances is worth nothing to us.

But, before I depress us overmuch, I need to say that I think we post-evangelicals know deep down that conversion of the lost is more important than all the entertainment of this world. Everything will change when we engage more devoutly in our own converted discipleship journey—updating the simple, millennia-old practices of our faith, by meeting as handfuls of believers in living rooms and coffee shops, reading the Bible and praying for each other, interceding over names of lost people, and serving together in our communities. We must repent of our idolization of comfort over conversion, knowing that only Jesus saves us.

Regardless of what others do, I commit to conversion-orientation, because it starts with me, or my vibrant faith dies along with evangelicalism. I repent that I have allowed entertainment to eclipse the importance of conversion, and will make concrete steps before the end of the year to engage with fresh focus in this area, and reject the idolatry of entertainment and comfort which evangelicalism has embraced.

I will…

  • Pray for the lost
  • Share my faith
  • Eliminate excessive entertainment & consumption
  • Engage in uncomfortable conversations
  • Converse with civility and redemption in mind online and in person

The Eclipse of the Bible by Self

We choose ourselves over the core convictions of the Bible routinely, so we are bereft of anything resembling the fruit of the Spirit. It has gotten so bad that mainline liberals who we think don’t even believe in the authority of scripture in their lives are better at actually obeying most of the commands of Jesus than we are. This is a profound indictment for us who purportedly have the blood of Jesus covering our sin. Jesus has called out a holy people, a royal priesthood of all believers, and instead we choose whatever our own selfish desires want. Instead of contextualizing the gospel, we rationalize our behavior. We think less of what the world needs to next hear, or what the gospel claims for our actions, and we think more of what backs up our actions in scripture. When we are challenged by anyone we do a google search of scriptures that might somehow be negotiated into backing up our behavior, rather than engaging in the word in such a way that it actually challenges us and our obedience to it any longer. We attack the world primarily over matters of sex, while being no more holy than we were a decade ago ourselves. We are stuck in our sins and believe in the authority of the Bible only in as much as it gives us the authority of self-expression of our evangelical political concepts over others. We don’t actually give the Bible authority over our own daily walk, we use it as a pseudo-authority over others, thus turning the living word of God into an idolatry of selfish aims.

But, I think we post-evangelicals know deep down that the Word of God is more important than any one of us in this world. If we return to the beautiful life-giving way of scripture-living people the movement may rebirth in us. If our neighbors see us actually living differently than them, instead of just putting a different political sign in our yards than them, we will have begun to change this trend. May we repent of our sins and go back to Scripture in our quiet moments each week, worshipping God in our every step, confessing and repenting when we err, and becoming a people that are admired for our devotion to living as Christ taught, rather than as hypocrites who always point out the sins of others, never taking care to confess our own.

Regardless of what others do, I commit to Bible-following, because it starts with me, or my vibrant faith dies along with evangelicalism. I repent that I have allowed authority of the self to eclipse the authority of the Bible, and will make concrete steps before the end of the year to engage with fresh focus in this area, and reject the idolatry of self which evangelicalism has embraced.

I will…

  • Read my Bible in a way that it convicts me about my behavior and attitude
  • Allow others to truly keep me accountable to live in a holy way
  • Live with conviction under the authority of Scripture
  • Eliminate hypocrisy from my life
  • Selflessly admit I could be wrong

The Eclipse of the Cross by Power

We choose the power of the world over the power of the cross, preferring to chase the halls of power in Washington D.C. through political machinations rather than to rely on the work of Jesu Christ. We would prefer to put a picture of ourselves with our favorite politician on our wall than the cross of Jesus Christ. We leaders point to our likes and shares and platform, all symbols of our powerful status, rather than point to the cross of Jesus, boasting only in him. We would rather invite a politician into our pulpit, literally between the congregation and the cross in our buildings, to curry favor and let fame rub off on us than to call people to the forgiveness of Jesus Christ at the cross. All too often this power we desire has actually had overtones of white power with a strident denial of any white privilege. We have allowed those with vaguely white supremacist views to not only take refuge in our churches and go unchallenged from the pulpit, but also to allow a neo-supremacist view of race to cultivate even among our educated and influential leaders. As this has happened, the idea of a Black Evangelical and a White Evangelical has become even more distinct, and the already deep divisions and darkest days of evangelical separatism have re-emerged, threatening the unity that God commanded of us in a more direct way than at any time since the Civil Rights era, when we likewise largely failed at the challenge set before us by God. Some have hoped that revival would come and then magically end our problems of race, providing unity. It could be that God is waiting upon our true repentance from the lust for power and the subtly supportive practices of racism to allow revival to come. We may have his priorities out of order, since confession often precedes and sparks revival, rather than coming after it.

But, I think we post-evangelicals know deep down that the cross is more powerful than the powers of this world. If we begin to see how the Holy Spirit might bring us together, across race and ethnicity, and to truly listen to the concerns of our brothers and sisters of color, we can reverse this trend. If we repent of our chasing after the power of the world, and begin to chase after the power of God, we will find a greater statesmanship, and a credibility to actually speak into the public square that we have somewhere along the way lost. When we think of our identity, we can regain a sense of movement only by pointing to the cross of Christ, by pointing to the party of the lamb, rather than advocating for the party of the donkey or the elephant, chasing after the permanent power of heaven, rather than temporary power of this earth.

Regardless of what others do, I commit to cross-focus because it starts with me, or my vibrant faith dies along with evangelicalism. I repent that I have allowed power to eclipse the cross of Christ, and will make concrete steps before the end of the year to engage with fresh focus in this area, and reject the idolatry of power which evangelicalism has embraced.

I will…

  • Fix my eyes on Jesus and his cross
  • Ask others to question ways in which I seek power
  • Eliminate partisanship from my faith convictions, demoting party affiliation to a preference
  • Ask open ended questions of people of color, receiving and follow their counsel
  • Doing the hard work of reconciliation that actually costs me something more than words

The Eclipse of Transformation by Money

We choose money over missions and over the transformation of cultures and societies. We calculate the cost of every move so we never say anything that might too sharply challenge anyone, we have ceded the prophetic high ground of biblical justice in our churches to ensure the steady flow of resources to make sure we meet budget and build buildings. We have lost the urgency to send anyone to reach the billions and billions who are lost worldwide, and evangelicalism is no longer the mission sending movement it was designed to be. Evangelicals from the global south now send droves of missionaries to North America to reach those we miss in our back yard, and nine other countries now send a higher percentage of their members as missionaries than we do. Church boards act more like money managers of missionary funds than the classical evangelicals who gathered in days gone by, shedding tears, praying prayers, and paying the way for those to reach entire countries dying without Christ. They sent their own sons and daughters for the cause, while we obsess about a rate of return on our investment like bankers instead of believers. Likewise, we care not for the actual transformation of our neighborhoods and cities at home. Evangelicals largely see immigrants and refugees as only a threat to our fiscal security, rather than people that we might reach for the sake of the gospel, or when they are Christians (as is often the case) seeing them as partners we can learn from and work with. This erosion of transformative motive has made tapping into the xenophobia of evangelicals a sure-fire election issue for politicians. We choose where to live and where to have our children educated with only a concern for our financial well-being and protection. Propagating our financial security and growth is the unspoken but constant aim of our decisions, and we cannot transform the souls and systems of society when the goal is our own greed.

But, I think we post-evangelicals know deep down that the transformation of our culture is more valuable than all the money in this world. We can restore what we once were by fostering a zeal for the world’s salvation, a sense of loving the whole world like our Father does, sending his own Son to save it and offer his transformative way of life to all. We can regain what God wants for us if we look at our culture as a whole, and find cross-cultural ways to bring the kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven, whether that means a loving connection to the immigrant new to our neighborhood, or the lost land in another hemisphere that needs us to rekindle the fires of missionary impulse.

Regardless of what others do, I commit to this kind of missionary culture-transformation, because it starts with me, or my vibrant faith dies along with evangelicalism. I repent that I have allowed money to eclipse the transformation of culture, and will make concrete steps before the end of the year to engage with fresh focus in this area, and reject the idolatry of money which evangelicalism has embraced.

I will…

  • Live on dramatically less and spend more wisely
  • Give a greater amount of my income to supporting missionaries
  • Pray for worldwide evangelism daily
  • Consider which areas of systemic injustice require my sacrificial investment
  • Eliminate ways I contribute to injustice and risks my white privilege to defend the oppressed

Four out of Five White Evangelicals

Now we need to talk about the elephant in the room. Much has been made of the data showing that White Evangelicals in the US voted for Donald Trump at a rate of 4 out of 5. You may not like me bringing this up in the context of this treatise which is more about the state of the church and theological matters, but like or not, as evangelicalism reaches total eclipse, it comes at a moment when we are associated quite directly with the President we largely helped achieve power. It is notable that many prominent evangelicals were silent about politics in the past few years, but many supported and continue to support Trump vocally. As a full disclosure on my part, two of the most notable public evangelical detractors of Trump include two great leaders I worked for directly in the last decade, Jo Anne Lyon and Max Lucado.

So as we consider evangelical identity in its age of eclipse it is pertinent to ask ourselves: is Trump an evangelical? I am tempted to say no, based on the above classical components of evangelical belief and life, Trump is not a classic evangelical. However, he may in fact roughly match the reality of evangelicalism in eclipse. He juggles these four factors like a court jester of Washington DC, giving little if any respect or attention to the values evangelicals have said they care about for hundreds of years.

He has experienced no personal conversion personally, claiming to have never even asked God for forgiveness and defending his faith as an entirely private matter, but he values entertainment over most anything, devoting most of his business life to it. Even those that cannot stand our president must admit that he is a highly entertaining sort. No one has ever accused the man of being boring. He is not Bible-following, in belief or practice, as is patently evident in his behavior and words. He is not cross-focused, never bringing to bear the concepts of redemption or the reconciling grace made possible by the death of Jesus on the cross. Nor is he culture-transforming, as his isolationist values make no room for the longstanding moral and Christian influence of our nation worldwide, something that evangelicals have perhaps even over-stated in the past, in their drive to be a witness to the world.

Some hoping to gain through his candidacy have written these things off as the beliefs and practices of a “baby Christian,” or a “man with flaws but a good heart.” I am not here to talk about politics. My aim is not to convince you to object to Trump as I and my mentors have, or to support him. Instead, my claim is that Donald Trump may in fact be a mirror to hold up to show evangelicals what they actually look like now. Whether you have a politically calculated toleration for Trump, or a revulsion to his policies and behavior, he is us, reflecting in the mirror all our lost glory as evangelicals.

Donald Trump is what we evangelicals already are, or at least are becoming. It explains why he is so supported among us. Even after a cavalcade of circus-like activity coming from the White House since his inauguration, he still retains his support. Why? Why not, I say, if he matches what we actual value. We love entertainment, ourselves, power, and money. Trump gives us those things. We need to admit it. We love these values even more than the Son of God they obscure behind them. We might fill out surveys and claim differently, but we don’t live that way.

Next Evangelicalism

In this treatise I have claimed that like the eclipse of the sun by the moon, evangelicalism has been eclipsed internally by other priorities and idolatry. Repentance is needed by we evangelicals, and a return to the core values that made evangelicalism purposeful for God in the first place. Evangelicalism was never perfect, but it was used by God, and perhaps this eclipse will pass if we each as individuals recommit to do our part to the core tenants that made evangelicalism work for Jesus. We may need to throw out the term. We may need to join a Christian identity that will emerge and be created by young people tomorrow that we cannot clearly see today. But whatever the case, may we again become those who value:

  1. Individual lives converted by Christ and made new…
  2. The Bible as the true guide for actually living differently than we used to live…
  3. The cross of Christ as the actual crux of history, which provides the only persistent power worth aligning ourselves with, and…
  4. The missionary transformation of cultures and communities, found here and nearby, and in the hard and faraway places likewise.

May all this be made possible by the Him who can do immeasurably more than all we ask or even dream of, Jesus Christ.


 

David Drury is author of ten books, including God is for Real, Transforming Presence, Being Dad, and SoulShift. He serves at the chief of staff for The Wesleyan Church headquarters. The Eclipse of Evangelicalism may be re-published in any format provided these lines are included. © 2017 by David Drury