Gen D

Gen D

On religious doubt in younger generations

“Well, I guess I picked the right topic.”

That was one of my thoughts when I first saw this research from Ryan Burge on the rise of religious doubt in younger generations. But it’s hardly the most important one.

My next book (out this Fall) deals partly with that very topic: the crisis of faith experienced especially by young adults within our polarized times. Though I argue that some of the ways both doubt and faith are spoken of in Christian circles can do more harm than good.

Coming back to Burge, respondents were asked whether they believed in God’s existence “with no doubts.” (I could go on here about how this is not a question that the Bible cares much about, but let’s skip to the results.) Older generations remained relatively stable and certain across time. Meanwhile, millennials and Gen Z showed a significant decline.

Now, if you’ve followed this blog very long, you know I dislike sweeping generational generalizations (e.g., Millennials are like this… .”), especially when those claims are used to cast aspersions on a diverse swath of humans across different cultural, economic, geographic, and ethnic backgrounds. (See here for one of my old rants on the subject.)

But Burge isn’t doing that. And the research raises some important questions. Of course, for one segment of the evangelical internet (aka: where fun goes to die), it might be used to justify the kind “hell-in-a-handbasket” fear-mongering that is used to fuel the culture wars and generational superiority: People better wake up, etc., etc., something about participation trophies…

But to be honest, I unfollowed those people a long time ago.

Here are few random queries I had after seeing these statistics:

1. What percentage of supposedly “doubt-free” belief amongst older generations connects to a confusion between saving faith and the profession of mental certainty?

In Perhaps, I write about a misunderstanding regarding what the Bible means by “doubt”—at least as it appears in our modern English translations. In most cases, the Scriptures don’t decry honest questions or uncertainty. Rather, they confront the cultivation of divided loyalties and allegiances in those passages that are seen to speak of “doubt.”

I don’t have time for all the biblical data here, but suffice it to say that some Christians have been led to believe that if we admit to doubts, we are essentially saying that we don’t have “saving/healing/bank-account enriching faith.” Not so. This idolization of absolute certainty probably has more to do with the Enlightenment and folks like Descartes than it does with Jesus and Bible.

What’s more, a conflation between faith and certitude leads to a whole host of problems including gullibility, arrogance, and dishonesty. After all, to say that one has no doubts about a mysterious and unseen God is to risk violating the command that says, “Thou shalt not lie.”

A better option, as A. J. Swoboda rightly notes, is that doubt should be neither vilified or valorized in and of itself.

2. What percentage of youthful doubt is resolved with laugh lines and male pattern baldness?

In other words, do humans (on average) tend to progress from a season of unsettling doubt to more firm convictions?

It seems possible that some of us undergo a period of more intense questioning (say, between our teens and middle age), while gradually moving to more settled opinions around the time we start getting wrinkles, bald spots, and colonoscopies.

I don’t think this “ageing out” interpretation accounts for all (or even most) of Burge’s data. Still, it would be interesting to know more about some of these older respondents in, say, the 1960s or 70s. Last I checked, Woodstock wasn’t an apologetics conference.

3. How much doubt amongst millennials and Gen Z is driven partly by the partisan dogmatism of certain evangelicals?

In Perhaps, my subtitle speaks of “Reclaiming the Space between Doubt and Dogmatism.”

By that latter term, I describe a confluence of characteristics among many of the most visible evangelical spokesmen (I almost changed that to “spokespersons” but that would be inaccurate). Namely,

  • A tone of partisan shrillness
  • A posture of false certainty

From Jerry Falwell Jr., to Mark Driscoll, to whatever small-time COVID-denier pastor that CNN loves to elevate—doubt is often driven as a reaction to an un-Christlike dogmatism. In Perhaps, I speak of this as “fringe revulsion” and “team shaming.”

To be clear, religious fundamentalists haven’t cornered the market on dogmatic shrillness and false certainty. There are dogmatic forms of secular Liberalism that are every bit as strident. For that reason, I suggest that one of the best ways to wrestle through seasons of doubt is NOT by binge reading a stack of New Atheists in the morning alongside some simplistic or rationalistic apologetic literature at night.

Rather, the Spirit often works on our “split brains” (more on that in the book…) by virtue of embodied habits, healthy community, ancient voices, and a willingness to cling to Jesus in spite of our many questions. In that way, folks of all generations can pass through the wilderness doubt rather assuming “deconstruction” is a destination.

You can pre-order my new book here; but just to prove that I’m not merely hocking my own “products”—here is another excellent one by A. J. Swoboda. (I’ve got a podcast interview with him coming soon; so stay tuned!)

Grace and peace.


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After insurrection

After insurrection

What do you say after watching a violent mob at the Capitol mercilessly beat a fallen police officer with American flags, while chanting Pro-Trump slogans and hurling profanities?

What do you say, especially if you are a pastor?

While the past year has been hard on everyone, my heart goes out to pastors. They have been tasked with reinventing weekend gatherings, distance-shepherding, budget shortfalls, and attempting to hold together congregations divided by political and social disagreement.

Then came January 6th.

How do pastors and Christian leaders respond to that?

Perhaps it is worth noting some of the different approaches on the table.

  1. Ignore it, because anything you say will be used against you.

This is the coward’s way, but I sympathize with it. Even the blandest statements will be challenged on social media, so it feels like there is no way to win. I’ve seen pastor-friends excoriated for what I take to be the most basic and biblical repudiations of such violence. Seemingly anything can be met with a digital conflagration of “Whataboutism.”

The temptation, then, is simple: Just talk about the new women’s Bible study on Esther (Er… bad example, she confronted the king; Ruth? No, she left behind her nation’s gods. Okay, maybe something on the Enneagram.)

  1. “We just need to pray.”

This approach is like the first, with the caveat that it acknowledges some vague problem. Call it division, discord, unrest, anger, polarization, upheaval—but don’t get into specifics. Don’t renounce or repent, just lament.

I sympathize with this approach too. We should pray, even when we don’t know what to say (Rom 8:26). And in some contexts, this may be the only path that will not result in a full-fledged revolt (still a metaphor?) from certain factions.

Nevertheless, in at least some instances, both Christ and the prophets were specific. They were willing to call out specific sins committed by specific groups. They weren’t cowards.

That’s why the mob killed them.

  1. The “both sides” approach

I sometimes choose this path too. After all, if all people are fallen, then “both sides” in any given dispute usually have done something wrong.

Clearly Leftist groups have engaged in violence too, even in recent memory. And that too should be condemned.

But the danger of adopting a “both sides” approach to every incident is that of falsehood and false equivalence. If one of my children beats the other senseless, I do not denounce them all because the others have also acted out at various points.

Prophets like Isaiah and Amos did not worry about allotting an equal word count to the sins of Israel and those of pagans. Nor did Jesus focus equally upon the failings of Gentiles, tax collectors, and Pharisees.

In some cases, the “both sides” approach is warranted. But not on January 6th.

  1. Pick a partisan team and go “all in.”

If the prior approaches suffer from a lack of courage, this one suffers from a lack of truth.

In polarized times, it’s tempting to choose Always Red or Always Blue, and then call balls or strikes to support that conclusion in every instance. You can build a big “platform” that way.

In this approach, “My side is never wrong.” And if the evidence appears otherwise, it must be a well-hidden conspiracy. “It must have been Antifa.”

To be honest, most pastors do not choose this path. It simply does not lend itself to leading a congregation.

Unfortunately, the so-called “leaders” of evangelicalism today have not been pastors—they have been self-appointed Thought Leaders™ without any theological training. They are “shepherds” who have never smelled like sheep. Or as they say in Oklahoma, “Big hat, no cattle.”

This approach produces cult members, not Christ-followers.

  1. Use discernment on when and how to speak the truth in love.

I’m convinced that Options 1-3 are sometimes right. It is not a pastor’s job to comment on every item in the news. Sometimes we should be silent. Sometimes we should simply pray. And sometimes we should stand between opposing factions (like Jesus between Pharisees and Sadducees) and say “Both of you are wrong.”

But in other moments, we should reject false equivalence and partisan Kool Aid-drinking to speak a clear word with truth and love.

Conclusion

What happened at the Capitol this week was the predictable result of idolatry.

One segment of that idolatry was rooted in a so-called Christian nationalism (see here and here), conspiracy theories, social media silos, and a consistent rejection of the way of Jesus.

Not all evangelicals are implicated in that failure. Neither are all Republicans, or even all people at the rally, many of whom were peacefully protesting what they thought was an injustice.

But the endless game of “Whataboutism” and false equivalence should not prevent the church from speaking clearly when the banner of Christ (literally, in the form of “Jesus 2020” signs and other Christian symbols) are aligned with behavior that is, in fact, demonic.

It’s one thing to be assailed by angry flag-wavers, it’s another thing when some of those flags have Jesus’ name on them.


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My Favorite Books of 2020

My Favorite Books of 2020

If there was a bright side of 2020, it was some extra time for reading amidst the homebound months of the pandemic.

Here are my favorites from the past year.

BIBLICAL STUDIES

Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity Within First-Century Judaism (Baker Academic, 2020).

Who wouldn’t want a whole book on ancient Jewish views on genital discharges, corpses, and eczema-related skin conditions?

While the topic of ritual impurity may sound odd to some lay readers, Thiessen’s careful work sheds fresh light on Jesus’ ministry by showing how he upholds the Jewish Law and aligns himself against the forces of Death. In so doing, Jesus functions as a kind of “holy contagion” that removes impurity by healing its source.

See my prior blog post on the book (here), and look for my Outpost Theology interview with Matt to be released in January, 2021 (here).

THEOLOGY

Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons (Fortress, 2020).

My favorite theological works are rarely the ones I agree with most fully. And in this case, it’s not even a book I find intelligible at every turn.

In some places, understanding Sonderegger’s poetic prose and elusive argumentation is like trying to construct an elaborate piece of IKEA furniture by using a copy of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland as directions.

“Just so.”

Nonetheless, this book remains the most interesting piece of theology I’ve read this year. Sonderegger crafts beautiful, opaque, surprising, and biblically-attuned reflections that cut against long-held assumptions about where we should to look to find the Mystery of the Trinity. Surprisingly, she finds pointers toward the triune processions in the Old Testament, through the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and the sacrificial rituals of Israel.

FICTION

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (Random House, 1985).

Quite obviously, this book wasn’t written in 2020. But McCarthy’s dark, apocalyptic brooding fits well amidst the tone and tenor of this year. (Even if I technically started it in 2019 [see here].) Despite all the attention he rightfully receives for The Road, I think Blood Meridian is the work of greater genius.

McCarthy explores the rough edges of human depravity by mining (and expanding) violent events that actually transpired near the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s. Alongside shimmering descriptions of the desert landscape, the high point of the novel is the way McCarthy’s villain (the Judge) becomes a rumination on what Scripture calls “the Satan.”

Someday, when I am allowed to teach a combination literature and theology course on “atheist prophets,” this book will make the syllabus.

SCIENCE AND MEDICINE

Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it Changed the World (Hachette, 2017).

If you want some perspective on our present pandemic, try going back a hundred years via Spinney’s treatment of the Spanish Flu. As I’ve noted previously (here), Spinney’s work in scientific history reminds us that pandemics are social phenomena as well as medical ones, and while history doesn’t technically repeat itself (Thank God), it does rhyme in all sorts of interesting ways.

BIOGRAPHY

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (Penguin, 2005).

I’m tempted to feel embarrassed by this one: First, because I’m late to the party; and second, because I read it after watching the musical more times than I can count with my four young children. (Don’t criticize my parenting.)

Still, Hamilton’s story is so improbable, and so well told by Chernow, that it stands on its own merits, even amid all the hype of the musical.

Especially in 2020, when America’s political fortunes lurched daily toward the abyss, Hamilton reminds us why the Experiment is worth protecting. This book made me care about our beautiful and broken country, though the daily news cycle often made me feel ashamed.

HISTORY

S. C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner, 2010).

Despite residing in Oklahoma, I’ve been mostly ignorant of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches, and one of the more remarkable figures in the American West. Until this book.

Born to a famous White captive (Cynthia Ann Parker), Quanah bridges the gap both genetically and temporally between the old world of Comanche warriors, and the new world that was coming. (In some ways, this history book was the real-world doppelgänger of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, but with the Native American narrative taking precedence.)

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the way it refused to fall into either of the two simplistic tropes regarding Native American warriors. The Comanches are detailed both in their nobility and bravery, and in terms of their horrific brutality, displayed especially in their attacks upon other Native American tribes across centuries.

If you haven’t read this one, pick it up.

CHURCH AND CULTURE

Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP Academic, 2020).

This year saw a number of books on racial justice shoot up the bestseller lists. And rightfully so. But McCaulley’s text is different in several ways.

Reading While Black is not a “Dear White people” book that attempts to explain the African American experience to outsiders. It is more a love letter to the Bible that has sustained the Black community through years of injustice, even while that same Holy Book was often used against Black Christians.

McCaulley reveals a tradition of African American exegesis that refuses to be weaponized or tokenized by EITHER White Conservatism or White Liberalism—and in that way, it has a prophetic word for all of us.

Listen to my interview with Esau (here) and pick up the book.

PREMODERN, PRIMARY SOURCES

Origen, On First Principles, A Reader’s Edition, trans. John Behr (Oxford, 2019).

Premodern texts often get left out of these lists. My favorite for the year is John Behr’s fantastic new translation of Origen’s On First Principles (Even if I couldn’t afford the two-volume critical edition).

The translation reads far easier than many other treatises from the period, and while Origen has often been derided and dismissed by orthodox theologians, a careful reading of On First Principles reveals a mind that is enraptured with Scripture, with God’s loving justice, and with questions that still plague us today–even if not all his conclusions are to be followed.

(Look for a section on Origen in my forthcoming book on the place of imaginative speculation in theology.)

Here’s hoping 2021 has even more time to read, but for different reasons.


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WWJV?

WWJV?

WHO WOULD JESUS VACCINATE FIRST?

As the first precious drops of the COVID-19 vaccine roll out across America, a pressing question swirled in prior weeks: Who gets them first?

In my state, as in most others, the majority of those doses will go to extremely vulnerable residents in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. (Though front-line workers will deservedly get some too.)

After all, nursing home residents are amongst those most likely to die from COVID-19. So we might be tempted to think that putting them first is nothing more than a common sense deduction that any civilization would make.

It is not.

And we should take a moment to recognize that fact—and then give thanks.

CRATERS ON THE MOON

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor describes the lingering influence of Christianity on Western culture like craters on the moon.

What he means is that the impact marks of the gospel are still visible, even if the theological beliefs which formed them are no longer so widely held. We are seeing one of those “impact marks” now in the decision to give our first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to people who may have little time left to live, even without it.

After all, one study showed that the average length of stay in a nursing home before death was about five months (here). Other studies differed slightly (here).

But by any tally, it’s not long.

So is our distribution plan “correct” by a purely utilitarian metric?

THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT

I listened recently to the Yale scientist, Nicholas Christakis, as he explained why giving our limited supply of COVID-19 vaccinations to those in nursing homes might NOT be the best approach.

He suggested that it could be better to distribute the vaccine “upstream” amongst citizens who are more likely to spread the virus, and thereby yield an exponential case-load reduction.

I have no epidemiological opinion on which approach is best; and even if I did, you shouldn’t listen to it (because getting your science and medical “takes” from unqualified people on the Internet is like calling a plumber for an appendectomy).

My point is NOT to say who SHOULD get the vaccine first, from a medical standpoint.

My argument is that our culture’s default assumption that “The last should go first” is influenced by theological factors that go beyond utilitarian ethics, economics, or default human behavior across millennia.

And I give thanks for that.

A HISTORIAN WEIGHS IN

Historian Tom Holland argues that one of the most enduring marks of Christianity has been the elevation of individuals who would have previously been seen as “less than” or disposable.

As an atheist himself, Holland does not believe the theological claims of Scripture, yet he admits that Christianity is the biggest reason “why we [in Western culture] assume every human life to be of equal value.”

When studying the ancient Greeks or Romans, he notes:

It was not just the extremes of callousness that unsettled me, but the complete lack of any sense that the poor or the weak might have the slightest intrinsic value.

Why did I find this disturbing?

Because, in my morals and ethics, I was not a Spartan or a Roman at all. That my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian [in those assumptions].

Tom Holland, Dominion, 16-17.

Of course, both Christians and secularists have often been terrible in consistently applying this ethic.

To choose just two examples: On one extreme sits a naked refusal by some to recognize the full humanity of brown-skinned kids in cages at the southern border. And on the other rests a stubborn inability to condemn the killing of unborn babies in the womb. Hypocrisy abounds.

Nonetheless… the assumption (at least in theory) about the intrinsic value of the vulnerable has seeped into the cultural groundwater.

And at the end of that long historical trajectory sits someone like Margaret Keenan—the 91-year-old British woman who was the first person in the UK to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

CONCLUSION

What was the reaction to the choice of Margaret Keenan, and others like her?

Not a single person I heard said, “Why save her? She’s going to die soon anyway.” Not a single person said, “Give the first doses to the powerful, the top-earners, and the ‘old-but-not-THAT-olds’.”

To be clear, I have no doubt that there will be inequities in vaccine distribution, especially in underdeveloped countries and underserved communities. But the very fact that we have chosen (in theory) to prioritize those who, by worldly standards, can contribute least to our economic and materialistic future shows a small glimmer of grace in a dark year.

That grace comes, as René Girard noted, from a Light that “has revealed so many things for so long a time without revealing itself that we are convinced it comes from within us.”

It’s a ray of sunlight on the craters of the moon.


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Pale Rider

Pale Rider

“Wars and plagues are remembered differently.”

That’s one of the closing insights from Laura Spinney’s book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World.

I read it recently to gain some perspective on COVID-19, and the upheaval that has accompanied it in 2020. (Quick note: Since Spinney’s book was published in 2017, it cannot be accused of rewriting history to provide commentary on our present crisis.)

Without a doubt, the two outbreaks—separated by a hundred years—are different. The Spanish Flu killed between 50 and 100 million people. And its occurrence on the heels of World War I made it a perfect storm of death and dissolution. In some cases, the flu finished off victims who were malnourished, riddled with tuberculosis, and without what we think of now as modern medicine.

The Spanish Flu also had a terrible “W-shaped” mortality curve, whereby it killed not only the very old and very young, but also a startling number of healthy young adults (28 years old was the peak of this curve, which may have something to do with the first flu virus these individuals were exposed to as children).

Undoubtedly, the two pandemics are not the same.

But there is something to be learned from the way history sometimes rhymes.

  1. Pandemics are social phenomena as much as medical ones

What Spinney means by this point is that the tumult caused by a plague goes far beyond the disease itself. Our ideologies show symptoms too.

And conspiracy theories spread as fast as the virus (see here).

In 1918, the Plandemic brain-worm took the form of a rumor that the Spanish Flu was manufactured by the German drug company Bayer—and distributed to Allied nations by way of aspirin packets.

In Washington D.C., newspapers printed the claim of Lieutenant Philip S. Dane, head of health and sanitation, when he asserted that the Germans had deliberately sown the flu in America to defeat us.

This was false, in part, because the leading theory now is that the Spanish Flu started near Fort Riley, Kansas. Patient zero was a corn-fed farm kid named Albert Gitchell who may have contracted the pestilence when it jumped from a duck, to a pig, to a human.

a God-fearing boy who had grown up on a farm and known no other life, unwittingly carried the virus into the American war machine, whence it was exported to the rest of the world (164).

  1. Masks and kids and empty stadiums

Like today, there was some controversy over use of masks in 1918.

In select cities, mask use probably cut the death toll in half. But the mayor of San Francisco faced a PR nightmare in 1918 when he was caught on camera with his mask dangling from one ear while watching an Armistice parade.

Some Christian ministers, like Father Bandeaux of New Orleans, protested the closing of churches in 1918. And in one case, packed worship services were held wherein dozens of parishioners were invited to come forward and kiss a single holy relic—the kiss of death, in some cases.

Footballers played to empty stadiums. And there was a bitter debate over whether children should return to school. New York’s health commissioner, Royal S. Copeland, was lambasted for allowing public education to continue, only to be vindicated when the flu was practically absent from the city’s school-age children that fall.

  1. Presidents, the poor, and pieces of a lung

In an echo of 2020, President Woodrow Wilson came down with a severe case of the flu while negotiating what became the treaty of Versailles. He raved with delirium and was, by some accounts, never the same after surviving it.

The president’s illness may have contributed to the disastrously harsh nature of the treaty. Apparently, Wilson’s sickness rendered him unable to fight for a more merciful arrangement (which he wanted), and which might have prevented the bitter rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.

Like in 2020, the poor were hit hardest. The death rate was lowest in developed countries like the United States and Australia. It was worst amongst populations that lacked proper sanitation, housing, water, and healthy food supplies.

In India alone, around 15 million people died.

Ninety percent of folks who got the Spanish flu experienced nothing worse than a bout of seasonal influenza—but in poor regions, and especially amongst indigenous populations like the Inuit of Alaska, the result was much worse. Entire villages were wiped out.

In one of these Alaskan mass graves, a San Francisco doctor embarked, in the 1990s, upon a controversial mission. He exhumed a body of a flu victim from the permafrost, packaged up her mostly frozen lung tissue, and shipped it off to researchers. Scientists then combined its genetic information with a lung sample from British soldier to resurrect the Spanish Flu.

After almost a century of lying frozen and dormant, the Spanish Flu is now alive and well in the CDC’s Level Four lab in Atlanta, Georgia.

CONCLUSION

What is the point of reading histories like Spinney’s Pale Rider?

One benefit is perspective. In the age of social media and Cable News myopia, we are beset by “presentism”—that’s Alan Jacobs’ word for what it means to drown in a deluge of constantly breaking information. Because there is SO MUCH information, many people commit an act of intellectual triage whereby we accept only those stories that confirm our pre-existing biases.

We are thus left in our silos of tribalism, anxiety, and the prison of the present tense.

History can’t solve all those problems, but it can grant perspective.

Wars and plagues are remembered differently.

So while six times as many Britons died of the Spanish Flu than in the trenches—we are only now beginning to read books like Pale Rider.


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Justice and terror

Justice and terror

In her excellent book, On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior notes how virtue can slide toward “excess” and not merely deficiency.

For instance,

[The] virtue of courage is found between the excess of rashness (a vice) and the deficiency of cowardice (also a vice).

Aristotle made this point in his Nicomachean Ethics. But I’ve been thinking about it in regard to justice.

Justice, after all, might be the word of the year for 2020—along with “apocalypse” and “social distancing.” Unfortunately, even a noble thirst for justice can get twisted by our sinfulness.

JUSTICE AND THE TERROR

Consider these words from Maximilien Robespierre, the social justice warrior/talk radio host of the French Revolution.

“Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.”

Robespierre helped orchestrate the so-called “Terror” in which thousands of French citizens were guillotined, some for no reason other than the pent-up vengeance of the mob.

He was an “influencer” who was obsessed with severe justice. But he lacked mercy, and the monster he helped create devoured him. He was guillotined in July of 1794 as the Jacobin regime collapsed around him.

This raises an important question: Was the murderous bloodletting of the guillotine an “emanation of virtue”?

Perhaps so (at least in some cases). But that doesn’t make it right.

The problem lies—as it does with every severed head—in the distance between the body of motivating virtue and the blood that “emanates” from it.

In other words, an act can start (or emanate) from a desire for justice, even while it results in flailing vengeance that is itself unjust. Violence begets violence. Victims become perpetrators.

When justice becomes a god, she begets vengeful demons.

JUSTICE WITHOUT JESUS

Michael O. Emerson makes a related point in his recent CT article, “Goodbye Christ; I’ve got justice duty” (here).

There he tells the story of two Christians who could stand in for many others.

“They represent what I see repeatedly. Christians grow up in faith defined as an individual relationship with Christ. When they learn that God cares about justice, and when they see the whiteness and complicity of the faith they claim, they either become tied tenuously to that faith, mocking many aspects of it, or they leave it all together.”

In these cases, the bitterness is directed toward Christ and his bride.

Some of that is understandable, and especially when certain evangelicals assume that the solution is to deny systemic injustice altogether (see here).

There is a better way.

As Emerson concludes:

Justice is not about domination or identity politics or even getting what is fair. Justice is about realizing right relationships, making right what is broken between us—including fixing our systems. Jesus’ justice is shalom: peaceful, equitable community in communion with YHWH, directed and empowered by the Spirit of Christ, certain to come to pass by God’s power and not our own.

Neither complicity nor vengeance will do. Neither deficiency nor excess.

CONCLUSION

The human tendency to “excessorize” virtue (not least through signaling) is worth remembering in this strange year of 2020.

We must guard not only against apathy but also anger that turns into bitterness, vengeance, and self-destruction.

To cite a philosopher far older than Aristotle, we must not only “act justly” but “love mercy,” and “walk humbly” with our God (Micah 6:8).


For my full interview with Karen Swallow Prior, you can listen to it on my podcast, Outpost Theology.


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The heresy of radical individualism (part 3)

The heresy of radical individualism (part 3)

How does individualism become a roadblock to racial justice?

With the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain, many white evangelicals have begun to pay more attention to racial injustice in America.

But there’s a catch.

In their book, Divided by Faith, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue that most white evangelicals do not have a category for structural racism, thus, they tend to view America’s “Race Problem” primarily at an individualistic level.

Divided by faith

For this reason,

well-intentioned people, their values, and their institutions actually recreate racial divisions and inequalities they ostensibly oppose.

RACE AND RADICAL INDIVIDUALISM

Worse yet, in our highly polarized environment, it has become fashionable (in some circles) to dismiss any talk of structural racism as a “Marxist” product of “Critical Race Theory.”

When I interviewed the Christian writer Jemar Tisby recently, he told me how confused he was to be labeled a “Critical Race Theorist” several years ago, because at the time, he didn’t even know what that meant. He was simply trying to be true to Scripture, history, and the black experience.

Unfortunately, when your only two options for viewing reality are “hyper individualism” or “Communist Collectivism,” every perspective must be crammed into one of those two buckets.

As I argued in parts 1 and 2, there is a better way.

BOB THE TOMATO TO THE RESCUE

Thankfully, recent days have brought accessible resources to help Christians grapple with the continuing reality of both structural and individual racism. From Phil Vischer, creator of everyone’s favorite Bible-teaching tomato, there was this helpful video on systemic racism.

And from Esau McCaulley, there was this informal talk on Scripture and structural sin.

TOWARD A BIBLICAL VIEW OF SIN

In this post, however, I want to address two things:

  1. How the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and systemic forms.
  2. How that connects to racism in America.

First, sin.

In my friend Tom McCall’s new book (Against God and Nature) he addresses how the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and corporate ways.

Unfortunately, to speak of structural or systemic sin can sound confusing. Sin is always personal. People sin. Structures don’t. But (and this is the important point) systems and structures can be inherently sinful, oppressive, and unjust.

What we need is a definition of structural or systemic sin.

As McCall rightly notes:

Sin becomes “institutionalized” as it perverts and warps social structures and institutions—which then in turn become breeding grounds for further sinful activities … this point is all-too-easily missed, overlooked, or denied by people who benefit from such institutions while being all-too-painfully-obvious to those who suffer from [them].

Structural sin is uniquely tied to power.

A great example exists in the 1986 and 1994 crime bills. (Though we could talk also of housing, hiring, or policing practices.)

For years, crack cocaine (which was seen as a “black drug”) was punished exponentially more harshly than powder cocaine (which was seen as a drug of wealthier white citizens), despite the fact that the chemical makeup of the two drugs is essentially identical.

By 2003, a whopping 80% of defendants sentenced under the harsher mandatory minimum sentences for crack were black, despite the fact that 66% of crack users are white or Hispanic. That’s a form of systemic racial injustice, and it didn’t happen in the 1800s or the 1960s.

More importantly, the lasting implications of such structural sin don’t just go away “poof!” when the law changes. The effects echo across generations with the voice of Rachel weeping for her children.

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Links to individual studies here.

In response, the individualist might say, “Well, don’t do crack and you won’t have to worry about it.”

That reaction is ungodly because it misses the biblical treatment of how sin perverts entire systems of justice, especially when money and power converge. For this reason, Deuteronomy 16 states:

18 Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. 19 Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. 20 Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.

PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

Another way Scripture speaks to systemic sin is through the language of the “principalities and powers.”

In the New Testament, these powers often refer to fallen spiritual forces that stand behind entire nations, governments, and ideologies.

To give allegiance to Christ requires one to recognize and reject these fallen principalities and powers—even within your own country or political party. The reason is simple:

“[God] raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come (Eph 1:20-21).

The relation between the “powers” and systemic sin is made most clear in the Book of Revelation, where whole churches are rebuked for specific sins (e.g., Rev 2-3), and whole empires (Rome especially) are seen to have become “beastly” in their oppressive, prideful, and persecutorial ways (Rev 13, 17, 18).

In short, the Bible sees sin as both an individual action and an enslaving demonic power that inhabits nations, churches, and in-groups.

But if all that’s true, why do many Christians reject the idea of systemic sin on the subject of race and racism?

THE INVISIBILITY OF STRUCTURAL SIN

Let’s return to the crime bills referenced previously.

As a young white person, I wasn’t even aware of this disparity.

Nor was I aware of redlining (which intentionally kept black people from owning homes, especially in white neighborhoods), poll taxes, convict leasing programs, for-profit prisons, the Tulsa race massacre, or (most importantly!) the specific experiences of black friends with unjust policing. (No, I didn’t say “all cops.”)

This speaks to a key aspect of structural sin: It tends to be invisible to those who are not directly affected by it. Hence, even well-meaning white Christians can scroll past the 99% of black voices telling their stories in order to “share” a viral video of the one black pundit who tells them exactly what they want to hear.

In this way, it is entirely possible to hate racism while failing to recognize how systemic prejudice has infected one’s own heart, in-groups, and Facebook timeline.

“BLACK ON BLACK CRIME”

Take for instance the frequent response that we need to stop focusing on police brutality and start focusing on “black on black crime.”

While it is certainly true that every crime cries out for justice, consider this: Why don’t we refer to America’s mass school shooting epidemic as “white on white crime”?

After all, most mass shootings in schools are perpetrated by white students, and the majority of victims have been white. We don’t speak that way because white citizens do not associate the violence or the victimhood directly with the shooter’s skin color, or with an entire race of people.

Instead, school shootings are seen to be work of deranged individuals with guns.

CONCLUSION

None of this means, of course, that every allegation of structural racism is justified. We need to deal in specifics, we need to listen charitably, and we need to be wary of how a thirst for justice morphs easily into a desire for revenge. (Read a book on the French Revolution to see how that ends.)

To address these challenges, we also need to move away from exclusively individualistic or collectivist understandings of sin (including racism), and toward a more biblical approach.

Sin is not just a naughty action done by individuals, it is an enslaving power that corrupts and co-ops systems, ideologies, and political parties.

As I’ve written elsewhere for a forthcoming book:

To focus only on systemic injustice allows individuals to justify their own sin while decrying “society” and institutions. Conversely, to focus only on individual sin allows the church to justify complicity in systems, companies, and political parties that become oppressive, even while I congratulate myself for being a faithful husband or a hard-working, God-fearing citizen.

Sin is both individual and systemic; hence Scripture cares about both personal morality and systemic justice.

When sin “masters” those in power, it creates structures of inequality and injustice—and to ignore this reality is no better than being high on crack.

 


For parts 1 and 2 in this series, see here and here.

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Why we love conspiracy theories

Why we love conspiracy theories

“The Jews did it.”

That was the claim made by certain medieval “Christian” bloggers in the face of the Black Plague. Jews were said to have started the pestilence by poisoning the water, and they were subsequently murdered when the fake news went viral.

But what does that have to do with current (Christian) conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19?

As best I can tell, the virus was cooked up in a North Carolina lab by Bigfoot and Barack Obama to keep pastors from preaching live–and/or getting their nails done. (I am immune. I swallowed disinfectant and an infrared lightbulb.)

CHRISTIANS AND CONSPIRACY THEORIES

Ed Stetzer issued a rebuke last week to those evangelicals who seem disproportionately prone to bizarre and politically-charged conspiracy theories.

Gullibility is not a spiritual gift.

Likewise, Dru Johnson wrote regarding Jesus’ own words against the tawdry rumor mill of End Times speculation:

Prior to his death, Jesus sternly warned his disciples against buying into the various conspiracy theories that would come. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars,” he said. But his counsel is revealing: “See that no one leads you astray…” (Matt. 24:4–6, ESV).

Both articles are instructive.

But my question is different.

Why are we (and especially certain evangelicals) drawn to conspiracy theories? Why do we find them almost irresistible?

A few thoughts:

    1. Conspiracy allows me to blame “them.”

You can’t sue a bat for damages. You can’t put a Venetian flea on trial. When disaster strikes, we want to blame “them.”

When a hurricane struck Texas and Florida, Jennifer Lawrence blamed the devastation on “Mother Nature’s wrath” against states that had supported Donald Trump. Pat Robertson blamed a Haitian earthquake on the islanders’ “pact with the devil,” and Jerry Falwell attributed 9/11 to “gays and lesbians” (see here).

While these may not be “conspiracies” per se, the common theme is a need to blame people we already loathe (“them”).

2. Conspiracy puts me in the know.

We all like to feel smarter than our out-groups.

And especially when those out-groups (university professors, the media, people who know math) have looked down on others for not having the expert status they possess. In many cases, conspiracy theories feed on our desire to acquire a special, secret knowledge (gnosis) that is lost upon the “shills” who believe what they’re told in the media.

3. Conspiracy defrays “sunk costs.”

The trouble with facts is their potential to invalidate my prior opinions. And if I’ve already “sunk” a lot of time and energy into supporting an opinion, ideology, or leader, contrary evidence feels like a slap in the face.

Conspiracy theories help defray “sunk costs” by providing an alternative narrative—even if it’s stupid.

4. Conspiracy is fueled by a lack of trust.

In his rebuke of Christian conspiracy theorists, Stetzer writes:

we need to speak up […] and lovingly say, “You need to go to trusted sources.”

Stetzer isn’t wrong. But his advice probably won’t work.

If “trusted sources” were seen as trustworthy by conspiracy theorists, then those persons would have never sought the “real story” from disreputable pundits, bloggers, and self-deputized evangelical “thought-leaders.”

Conspiracies run rampant precisely because there are NO universally trusted sources anymore—only silos inside silos inside silos.

5. Conspiracy abhors an expert.

In fundamentalist Christianity, scientific “experts” have long been viewed negatively. They were alleged to be (and sometimes were) dishonest deconstructors of biblical truth, as seen in the likes of Darwin, Dawkins, and Sam Harris.

Unfortunately, this posture furthers the misconception that Christians must be “science-deniers” who can be lumped with other flat-earth, anti-vaxxer, fringe groups. To be frank, it pushes intelligent young people to throw out the “Baby” of orthodoxy with the “Bathwater” of anti-scientific fundamentalism.

6. Conspiracy sells.

Big tech companies are in an awkward position. They are driven by ad revenue. So while they are often accused (and sometimes rightly) of muting free speech, they also profit tremendously from conspiratorial nonsense.

One study showed that conspiratorial “fake news” was far more likely to be shared than anything else—and especially when its existence is seen as being threatened. In short, conspiracy sells.

7. Conspiracy is sometimes true.

Lastly, it is important to remember that truth is sometimes labeled as a “conspiracy theory.”

Imagine the following scenario: You are a Gentile Roman citizen in the first century. Which story seems likely:

  • A man was crucified; God raised him from the dead; he now rules creation.
  • A man was crucified; his crackpot Jewish followers stole his body and then claimed (ridiculously) that he was resurrected.

The answer, as during the Black Plague, seemed obvious:

“The Jews did it.”

I’ll give Johnson the last word:

Therein lies the good conspiracy that we are to spread: The kingdom has come and is still coming in the ordinary lives of overlooked people in our communities. But that also means there are other conspiracies—lesser ones—that will compete and distract us from where God is trying to focus our efforts.

If we’re busy carrying out the mission of the coming kingdom, we won’t have much time or energy for tawdry conspiracy theories—and pretending we can peel back the curtains of history and discern the exact signs of the king’s coming will seems frivolous at best.

 


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Quiet heroes

Quiet heroes

A tragedy in our age of spectacle is that we often make morons famous while courageous people labor in quiet fidelity.

“Quiet” is the key word there.

And Good Friday reminds us it’s not new.

The Roman historian and politician Tacitus (c. 56–120 AD) famously remarked that

“Under Tiberius, all was quiet” (Hist. 5:9).

There were apparently no Messianic news stories during those years that demanded the intervention of the Roman legions in Palestine. Hence, as far as Tacitus was concerned, little happened.

But of course, something happened under Tiberius: Jesus lived, died, and rose again.

And a later historian (and atheist) Tom Holland claims that no event would have more impact on subsequent centuries than the “quiet” one that failed to appear on Tacitus’ Newsfeed.

Even in those days, the algorithms had other priorities.

Holland:

To believe that God had become man and suffered death of a slave was to believe that there might be strength in weakness, and victory in defeat.

HEROES

I’m reminded of that truth today (Good Friday) as I hear of my former students, both nurses, who are now headed into crowded, virus-laden hospitals—in New York and New Jersey.

One of them (Amanda) has blogged her experience beautifully (here).

And another (Jo-Nieca) has volunteered to leave her young family in Oklahoma and serve in an overrun New Jersey hospital.

Pray for them when you think about it. And pray for other quiet heroes placing themselves in traumatic situations for the good of others.

“Good” is the key word there, on a day (Good Friday) that redefines that concept too.

 


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Deep thoughts on Tiger King

Deep thoughts on Tiger King

Hey all you cool cats and kittens.

Gird your loins.

Like many people, my wife and I got sucked in to the Netflix documentary, Tiger King, as a much-needed distraction from our COVID-induced lockdown.

It was, well… a lot.

Admittedly, finding life-lessons in the show might seem as likely as extracting high nutritional value from a bag of Cheetos. But since Cheetos may be all I have left soon, here goes.

“I SAW TIGER”

For the uninitiated, the king himself (“Joe Exotic”) hails from down the road from me in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. He’s an openly gay, gun-toting, mullet-wearing, lip-synching, PETA-hating polygamist (technically: polyandrist) who owned several hundred live tigers in a private collection.

Joe ran for Governor in 2018 and received 18% of the Libertarian primary vote. But that was before his conviction in a murder for hire investigation, which sent him to a federal prison that is currently infected with COVID-19.

Caught up?

Some have argued that Tiger King’s absurd storyline (in which reality and Reality TV converge) is the perfect match for our current cultural moment. And by some people, I mean my friend Josh who sells electric motorbikes and month-by-month phone plans. (Hi Josh.)

K. B. Hoyle describes it this way over at Christ and Pop Culture:

[It is] not a documentary so much as a circus presented to a captive America during a time of crisis while we wait for the government to dole out to us our bread.

There are only villains and victims in this story—no winners and no heroes.

Hoyle’s claim is that when “bread” is short, we settle easily for “circus.” (Read the whole thing here.)

But what lessons can we glean from Joe in a time when schools, church buildings, and counseling offices are largely closed to the public?

I’ve boiled it down to three F-words: (1) freedom, (2) fame, (3) frauds.

1. FREEDOM

One question the series raises involves how far our individual “freedoms” should go. And that’s especially relevant in a time of social distancing.

Where else on earth can one buy, breed, and monetize hundreds of man-eating tigers in their own backyard? Answer: I don’t know. But I bet places like Oklahoma are just a teensy bit unique on planet earth.

We Americans like freedom, and rightly so.

We don’t like people saying we can’t do what we want: Even if what we want are two hundred live tigers, three husbands, and a private military arsenal in the woods behind a Casey’s gas station.

It’s in the Constitution. Or not. I’ll Google it.

But what if—and just go with me here…—total individual freedom is not the highest good? Perhaps in some cases, thumbing our nose at regulations—say, a social distancing order—could actually result in a massive loss of freedom for others (say, health care workers)?

(I say this after having driven by the local Lowe’s and noting how packed it still is. Do they sell food and ventilators now?)

Sometimes, a “freedom first” mentality has advantages—like an entrepreneurial spirit or a resistance to dictatorship. But absolutizing the “I can do what I want” mindset is as foolish as sticking your arm (or that of your ER nurse) inside a tiger cage.

2. FAME

A second point raised by the show is how far people are willing to go to be famous.

By the end, Joe’s friends all admit that his passion stopped being tigers and started being celebrity. It’s why he ran for Governor, started an internet show, created terrible lip-synched videos (see here), and filmed literally every moment on his giant tiger-topia—including some that helped land him in jail.

Herein lies a parable for “leaders” in the age of internet celebrity.

Chasing fame incentivizes ever more outrageous behaviors, statements, and hairstyles.

Before you know it you’re in federal prison. Or federal office. It goes both ways.

3. FRAUDS

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the documentary (nope, I take that back) is the way it slowly causes you to question which “tiger person” is most fraudulent.

Which big cat lover is actually most deranged and dangerous?

Joe, of course, wears his absurdity like gaudy earrings—nine per lobe. But his bête noire of big cat breeding is a tiger queen named Carole Baskin.

Carole is beloved in the animal rights community for her attempts to “rescue” cats from exploitative keepers. Yet as the series rolls on, you start to wonder if Carole and Joe are that different. (Not to mention the defacto cult leader “Doc” Bhagavan Antle, who runs another private zoo/harem.)

Like Joe, Carole Baskin also lives under a cloud of murder rumors (her millionaire husband disappeared mysteriously); she too makes money off of caged cats; and she too has legions of followers who serve as near slave labor for her big cat kingdom.

To cite Hoyle again, “There are several predators [here]”–and none of them are tigers.

Who really cares about the animals?

Who is the bigger fraud?

Now for my super-sentimental conclusion.

CONCLUSION

At the end of every Jerry Springer episode, Jerry shared a “Final Thought.” It was an absurd attempt to spin the show’s empty calories into something poignant and practical so viewers would feel better about having consumed them—like wrapping dog poop in a page from Chicken Soup for the Soul and handing it to the audience with a smile.

This blog post is like that.

Smile.

But after 27 seasons, Jerry’s final Final Thought was this: “We’re not better than these people. We just dress better.”

Is that true of me and you and Joe Exotic?

I don’t think so.

But then again, we loved the show; and we’ve been wearing sweatpants for weeks.

 


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