psychic numbness

psychic numbness

This summer I slogged through the 25th anniversary edition of Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

The work was recommended by my brother-in-law, and was made more relevant by renewed concern over nuclear war after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s easy to see why Rhodes won accolades, though the 800+ pages contained more scientific minutia than this theologian could digest.

One of the more thought-provoking passages includes an observation on how civilized and ostensibly Christian allied powers got to the point of indiscriminately fire-bombing enemy cities—and eventually dropping atomic bombs on civilians.

After harrowing first-person accounts of the Feuersturm in Hamburg, where at least 45,000 people (mostly old people, women, and children) were killed in a single night, Rhodes writes:

“Civilians had the misfortune to be the only victims left available. […] No great philosophical effort was required to discover acceptable rationales. War begot psychic numbing in combatants and civilians alike; psychic numbing prepared the way for increasing escalation” (475; emphasis added).

Summation: War begets numbness. Numbness abets escalation.

My point here is not to say anything about the bombing campaigns of WW2. I’m well aware of the complexities that surrounded those decisions—and of the calculus of possible lives saved by avoiding invasion of the Japanese home islands. None of that is my direct concern.

Instead, Rhodes’ claim strikes me as insightful insofar as it may apply to other “escalations”— beyond firestorms, incendiary bombs, and even nuclear war.

His point is that cultures don’t transgress certain self-imposed / ethical “red lines” because smart people devise sufficient rational arguments. To the extent that such arguments exist they are more likely post facto rationalizations. In times of “war” (read: trauma, fear, and intense conflict), drivers of human behavior are more concussive than cerebral. And in this way, they are exacerbated by “psychic numbing.”

In both Old and New Testaments, the language of no longer having “ears to hear” and “hands to feel” sounds a bit like anesthetic state described by Rhodes. Thus, when Walter Brueggemann describes the function of prophetic witness, he often sets it in contrast not merely with error or idolatry, but with a kind of apathetic numbness.

In this sense, prophetic speech is not primarily concerned with making people feel badly—but with helping people feel rightly—in the midst of a culture that has numbed them to that which should strike them as unhealthy and destructive. “Worldliness,” in the words of my old professor, David Wells, “is anything that makes sin seem normal and righteousness seem strange.”

If that’s true, then one of the chief goals of preaching is not simply to point people to Jesus or to make valid observations about Scripture; it is also to break through “psychic numbness.”

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prophets and scribes

prophets and scribes

Here’s a delightful passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead:

“How do you tell a scribe from a prophet…? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to me to do.”

I wrote a fair bit on the distinction between prophets and demagogues in Perhaps; but I don’t think I included this insightful snippet.

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On ditching Facebook and reinvesting in this blog

On ditching Facebook and reinvesting in this blog

Uvalde did it.

I’ve felt for awhile that I’d be wise to step away from social media. But of course, I have excuses. For instance:

I write books. And publishers care about your online following. Will they still grant me contracts if I ditch socials?

What about my friends who live far away? How will I keep up with them?

And most germanely, what if I miss the world’s greatest meme?

But in the wake of so much political and cultural bickering, I’ve finally reached a tipping point—at least for the foreseeable future.

In the inimitable words of Alan Jacobs:

“I left Twitter because I watched people who spent a lot of time on there get stupider and stupider, and it finally occurred to me that I was probably getting stupider too. So after some reflection, I decided that I couldn’t afford to get any stupider.”

Same—but Facebook.

The danger in that comment is it may sound self-righteous—as if everyone doing the thing I stopped doing five seconds ago is foolish and immoral. I don’t feel that way. And this post isn’t a legalistic humble brag.

As I said, the digital aftermath of Uvalde (and a dozen other issues) pushed me to a breaking point. As a dad with four small kids in public school, my nation’s bi-monthly mass casualty events hit differently. It feels sometimes like it’s just a matter of time before I get a text—like the one I received a few years back—that reads: “Active shooter on campus. Shelter in place; this is not a drill!” Thankfully, that potential gunman was arrested before he made it to the school where I work. But the security alert remains as a reminder.


If the real-life tragedies are not enough, there are the invariable (and entirely predictable) “encores” on social media: laments, followed by outrage, followed by hot takes, followed by arguments, followed by memes. Repeat that process over a thousand contentious topics and you can sell a lot of ad revenue, mine a lot of data, and change nothing but your anxiety level.


That’s why Uvalde did it.

If it were five years ago, I would have (1) thought about it for a day or two, (2) crafted a blog post, (3) had Brianna read it to ensure I wouldn’t get fired, and then (4) shared the post on social media. If my writing happened to be punchy or provocative enough, dozens of people would share it, a few thousand might read it, and if everything went just right I might have the privilege of adding to the very social media firestorm I’ve come to loathe.

When that happens—and it’s happened a few times for me—you realize what Kurt Cobain must have felt like to stand inside an elevator and hear an instrumental version of Smells like Teen Spirit wafting through the tiny speakers–played by Kenny G. It’s the sense that your work has been co-opted to contribute to the very thing it tried to demolish.

Hence, if you haven’t noticed, I don’t do that much anymore.


I’ve been wondering, in fact, if I should shut down the blog. Or perhaps just write on topics that are less combustible—like books that only a tiny fraction of society will care about. But recently, I’ve considered another possibility:

What if I dedicated a year to rebuilding the blog and simply got off Facebook?

Because I like writing. I just hate “the encore” on social media.

(I won’t pretend that this approach is perfect. Maybe it’s no different from Cobain selling songs to Kenny G and then refusing to ride elevators.)

In any case, I’ve been off Facebook for about a month and I feel better.

There are a few hundred of you out there who subscribe to these posts and receive them via email. I appreciate that little group, and I wonder if I could develop it apart from the digital hellscape that is Zuckerberg’s outrage-boosting algorithm.

At some level, I need to write—for the simple reason that I need to think.

On that point, I relate to Saint Augustine who remarked later in life that people would never understand how much he changed his mind by writing. Composition doesn’t just convey one’s thoughts, it crystalizes and confounds them. Something emerges in the process. Writing is thinking. And thinking is sorely needed in an age that has become—in the words of Jonathan Haidt—uniquely stupid.

So here’s what I’m thinking:
• I’m ditching Facebook for the foreseeable future.
• I’m going to try to invest regularly in this blog.
• My posts will likely be shorter and less polished (not that they were ever particularly long and shiny), partly because I have two books in the works—and they take precedence.
• If you enjoy these posts, I invite you to subscribe by way of that green button on the homepage.
• They’re all free, and worth every penny.

Peace, ~Josh

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How (not) to affirm penal substitution

How (not) to affirm penal substitution

“What is modern life if not an endless argument over acronyms? CRT, MAGA, BLM, LGBTQIA—and in some theological circles—PSA (penal substitutionary atonement).”

~The London Lyceum

The good folks over at The London Lyceum asked me to write a response to the 2017 Southern Baptist resolution on penal substitutionary atonement (PSA).

My piece comes as the first installment (here) in what promises to be a fantastic series that the Lyceum is doing on Christ’s saving work. Future posts by other scholars will come out every couple days for the next week or two.

For newcomers, it’s safe to say that fights over PSA have often generated more heat than light in recent decades–with one camp crowing loudly that PSA simply is the gospel (full stop), and another likening the doctrine to pagan notions of “divine child abuse.”

I wrote on the topic at length in The Mosaic of Atonement.

In a nutshell, I do think Scripture teaches that Christ willingly endured a judgment for sin on our behalf–both “in our place” and “instead of us.” So I’m a “Yes!” on a properly nuanced form of penal substitution.

Unfortunately, not all expressions of the doctrine are nuanced, biblical, or charitable.

That brings us to the 2017 SBC resolution.

The goal in posting my response is not to throw stones at the SBC (there are many fine folks within that tribe), but to make some headway in how Christians ought to affirm the biblical claim that Christ bore the judgment for human sin on our behalf, so that we might be redeemed.

You can read my piece over at The London Lyceum (here).

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