A few years ago I met Jim as he audited my university New Testament class.
For the unfamiliar, auditing means attending my lectures simply for the fun of it, rather than for college credit. (Needless to say, some of my traditional students find this very odd.)
Nevertheless, Jim and I became friends. And I then learned that he is a PhD scientist, specializing in Climate Change, and having taught for years in the Geosciences at Texas A&M.
Jim is a scholar.
Yet he is also an evangelical Christian, living in the Bible-belt — which brings us to the opening line about his almost “mythical” status. As he admits, evangelical climate scientists (with actual PhDs in the field) are somewhat rare.
EVANGELICALS AND CLIMATE SCIENCE
Manmade global warming, while accepted as an empirical fact in many places, is often controversial in the Bible-belt (though not for theological reasons).
And like everything else, it is highly politicized.
Even so, the command to be good stewards of our earth is a mandate for all Christians. And the need to listen to actual experts on such subjects (rather than unqualified bloggers like myself!) seems wise.
So whether you “believe” in manmade climate change or not, I hope you’ll enjoy the interview I did with Jim.
In it, he attempts to explain:
How warming happens;
Why he can be quite certain it is both real and human-caused; and
How his treatment of the topic differs from some others as it comes from a Christian concern for the “least of these,” and an acknowledgement of the imago Dei.
You can access the conversation, in two formats.
First, there is an audio conversation shown below, and secondly (further down) there is an email response from Jim in which he responds to some questions on Christians and climate change.
EMAIL Q&A WITH JIM NORWINE
Q: How do we know that man made global warming is real?
Oh boy. How to answer that in a few sentences….?
First, we know nothing with absolute certainty other than our selves, and even that could be a projection by some external whatever. (The latter is the ancient philosophy of solipsism, “I am the only reality,” which is impossible to refute…but which most of us choose to ignore in order to get on with “our”—we hope–lives.)
Seems obvious when you think about it but in fact even very educated folks often seem to think we are eating into the corpus of ignorance and soon will have digested the whole enchilada. Nothing could be further from the truth. Knowledge is by its nature finite. Ignorance is infinite.
Think of the former as standing on a new and still-rising volcanic mountain on an island in the middle of the sea. Every day you are higher and higher, see (know) more and more. So easy to think, what a smart boy am I! And true up to a point. But: every day the horizon recedes further and further. This is the point of the folk, and scholar’s, wisdom, “the more I know the greater my ignorance.”
So I suppose one could say there is one kind of “certain” knowledge, that of apprehending the limits inherent in being embodied createds.
Second, as to knowing in a scientific sense, there are levels. One may know in the sense of a law, like that of gravity. Near-“certain” because of so many repeated demonstrations and observations. (Still never really certain because a law, like that of gravity, is not the reality, just the best description one has at the moment. And in fact the law of gravity has been overturned: Aristotle to Galileo to Newton to Einstein and so on.)
The next level of knowledge in science is that of theory. You might think of a successful theory as a sort of baby or not-quite-yet law. High confidence again due to verification by testing and testing and still more testing. The theory of evolution is a good example. When folks hear the phrase they often confuse theory with hypothesis. The latter is the educated guess with which one begins the practice of the scientific method. Hypothesis is merely square one on the Monopoly board of science; theory is at the very opposite end of the practice, one half-step short of law.
Anthropogenic warming is in, or at least close to, the latter category, in terms of the broad relation between CO2 levels (and those of other greenhouse gases) and planetary temperature. Our studies of Earth’s climate history provide robust evidence of CO2 level as one of the 4 principal causes of climate change over many thousands, even millions, of years, along with the astronomical cycle (3 cycles in Earth’s orbital geometry), volcanic activity, and solar output.
To wit, warm epochs in the past were periods of high CO2 and vice versa. It is true that important details remain open to question, such as the rate of future warming. Our mathematical models are impressive but again they are only simulations of the vastly more complex real deal so always open to improvement.
Backing up a bit, I should have mentioned that speculation about the thermal effect of emissions from fossil fuels dates to the late 1900s. This “educated guess” was based on a by-then clear understanding that Earth is only inhabitable because of the greenhouse effect.
Quickie short course: the sun is so hot it emits extremely short-wave radiation, energy which zips through our atmosphere like the proverbial knife through butter. However, the Earth is much, much cooler, so that it re-radiates the energy outward in the form of long-wave length “heat” that CO2, methane, ozone and other gases are able to trap in the lower atmosphere with great efficiency. (This “extra” leaks out to space at night so over time Earth usually remains in heat balance.) Consider Mars and Venus by comparison. Both have mostly CO2 atmospheres, but Mars has such a thin atmosphere it lacks the “blanket” needed to trap the outgoing energy near the surface and hence is cold, while Venus has a thick atmosphere with a super9efficient greenhouse effect, hence mean temps of 800-900F.
Q: How do you, as a Christian (and, I think, as a fairly conservative guy) think about this issue differently than some of your colleagues in climate science.
Another toughie to answer briefly.
First, they are right to be skeptical. Just as there was some core of truth about Hilary’s famous “vast right wing conspiracy,” I am confident that there is a strong undercurrent among advocates and progressives in general to place, and enforce using state power, ever-greater limits on personal freedom. (And like the right-wing conspirators, not out of some dark impulse but because of a sort of true-belief faith, in the case of the progressives in “positive”—rules, regs and laws designed to maximize equality of condition–as opposed to the “negative”—“don’t tread on me”—freedom conservatives favor.)
But finally, it don’t make no nevermind, as we say in TX. Or: just because you are paranoid don’t mean there ain’t a bad’un behind you. See answer above: Earth is habitable only because of a wonderful (for us) process that we are overdoing. Liberal plotting and conspiracy notwithstanding, enough extra CO2 is like enough extra jelly donuts: warmer/fatter. Trads of all folks should be first to remember that we are not and never will be “as gods.”
Another reason for conservative dubiety is they intuit, correctly, that they have been lied to by advocates. I.e., “leaving fossil fuels behind won’t be that hard.” Complete and profoundly disingenuous nonsense. (Sort of like “you can keep your doctor, it won’t cost more, etc.” with health care.) Elites think that ordinary folks are so stupid and selfish that they can’t be told the truth about sacrifice.
Fossil fuels were the most transformation discovery in human history since fire itself. The challenge of moving away from their use even done gradually will be immense, something on the order of the Great Depression, WWII, and Europe’s Black Death plagues.
Another common theme from advocates: “we are all in this together.” Yeah, right. Folks see Al Gore and Bill Gates in their vast estates gobbling up energy, and elites with few if any kids living in huge homes, taking jetliner flights to climate conferences–each of which has a greater environmental footprint that a redneck family for a year—all smug in their confidence that by a. recycling and driving hybrids—behaviors that don’t inconvenience them one iota–, and b. preaching to nobodies about how awful they are to drive gas guzzlers, they are sorting with the angels.
And of course they also almost universally support policies like “cap and trade,” which will double or treble energy cost. Again, no big problem, merely some modest tweaking of lifestyle (fewer trips to Cabo, etc.)…but try to imagine the impact of a summertime monthly electricity bill of $800 or $1,000 for someone of modest means living in an older home or trailer.
All the above have unfortunately contributed to many traditional losing sight of our No. 2 marching order: the well-being of the least of these. Opting out of the conversation is consequential, because by participating they could hugely influence new policies and regs, which are surely coming one way or the other. For instance, to lobby for James Hansen’s “fee and dividend” plan, which would raise energy costs enough to cut back emissions but would all be rebated to individuals/families at year’s end. (Progs mostly hate fee and dividend because all the taxes in cap and trade go to the state. As in California now, and Australia earlier, neither of which effectively cut CO2.)
Q: What would you say to those who think manmade climate change is basically a ploy driven by some other political or ideological agenda?
Guess I sort of answered this above: “First, they are right to be skeptical. Just as there was some core of truth about Hilary’s famous “vast right wing conspiracy,” I am confident that there is a strong undercurrent among advocates and progressives in general to place, and enforce using state power, ever-greater limits on personal freedom. (And like the right-wing conspirators, not out of some dark impulse but because of a sort of true-belief faith, in the case of the progressives in “positive”—rules, regs and laws designed to maximize equality of condition–as opposed to the “negative”—“don’t tread on me”—freedom conservatives favor.) But finally, it don’t make no nevermind, as we say in TX. Or: just because you are paranoid don’t mean there ain’t a bad’un behind you. See answer above: Earth is habitable only because of a wonderful (for us) process that we are overdoing. Liberal plotting and conspiracy notwithstanding, enough extra CO2 is like enough extra jelly donuts: warmer/fatter. Trads of all folks should be first to remember that we are not and never will be “as gods.”
But Let me know if you want further clarification.
To recognize that there is a problem with climate change is one thing… but what can the global community actually do about it at this point?
I should have already stressed this point: we can do nothing about the warming from the emissions already done. And frankly not much in terms of actually “fixing” the problem anytime soon. We are going to have to adapt to a warmer world. The key question is how much warmer. The toughest aspect of doing that is that those who sacrifice now will not live to experience any of the benefits.
James Hansen leads the so-called 350 movement, That is, to get CO2 back to 350 ppm from the current 410 or so. (~275 at the start of the Industrial Rev.) Very unlikely methinks, at least without massive economic disruption, with most disastrous impacts on the world’s nobodies. I believe that a doable objective (doable, anything but easy) is to get the level stabilized at or below 450 and then by ~2100 with luck, hard work and sacrificeback down to around where it is currently. That means something like a 5F rise by century’s end. A big challenge, but nothing like the 10F or more which could well present an existential threat if we if we don’t begin to flatten the rate of increase.
Returning to your question, if we could go back in time 20 years I would say that candor would have made a big difference. A forthright message of the need for shared sacrifice like ML King Jr.’s Christian-morality based movement. Recall his own personal example of sacrifice writing from the jailhouse, etc. Maybe too late for that now. In a self-referential age like the one we now inhabit, post-modernity, evidence along no longer persuades many unless it bolsters what they already believed. (And new studies make it clear that is as true of liberals as conservatives.)
Maybe if a Francis Collins led a movement of traditional evangelicals….? Perhaps somehow combined with Ron Dreher’s “Benedict Option”…in which we do retreat in some manner to spiritual “sanctuaries”—living as we do in an alien and ever more hostile post-theistic world—but reach out from them to that world, kind of ala Jeremiah’s concern for the pagans.
In the second century Letter to Diognetus, there is this description of the early church:
They live in their own countries, but only as foreigners. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed.
The point of the passage—aside from the bit on marriage beds—is that while the first Christians were good citizens, they saw themselves as “foreigners” within their “fatherlands.”
They rejected nationalism, because they believed that they belonged to a Kingdom that transcended earthly borders.
Is it ever okay for a Christian to utter the now-resurgent slogan “America First”?
AN INITIAL ANSWER
In pondering the question, my initial answer was a quick and solid “Nope.”
America, despite my gratitude for her, is not first.
And Christ’s Kingdom knows no borders, tribes, or nationalities.
Beyond this, Christ’s Kingdom will endure long after America is a forgotten footnote in the dusty book of human history–alongside Rome, Byzantium, and others.
As Isaiah states:
Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket
they are regarded as dust on the scales (Isa. 40.15).
All this is true.
Unfortunately, “Nope” is not a very lengthy blog post.
And, to be honest, I have considered one qualified(!) sense in which it might be okay for a Christian to put “America First”—though I will not be saying it.
Still, I’ll start with the massive problem with the phrase.
A “NOPE” TO NATIONALISM
If the expression “America First!” carries even a hint of nationalism (as opposed to gracious patriotism), it is quite obvious that a Christian should not say it.
As Ryan Hamm defines it:
Patriotism is a love of one’s country (which may be good).
Nationalism is a love of country at the expense, or disrespect, of other nations.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, the very notion of a “Christian nationalist” is an oxymoron.
It is a form of syncretism that verges on idolatry as much as stacking plastic Baals and Buddhas on the altar at one’s local church.
A less academic term for syncretism (the mixing of gods) is what I call a “Ricky Bobby religion”—as evidenced by his heartfelt plea from inside an imaginary fire in the movie, Talladega Nights:
Help me Jesus! Help me Jewish God! Help me Allah! AAAAAHHH! Help me Tom Cruise! Tom Cruise, use your witchcraft on me to get the fire off me!
On a more serious note, it was a plea for national allegiance (from religious leaders) that led finally to Christ’s murder, which may make nationalism the first heresy.
“If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar” (Jn. 19.12).
Hence the twinge of pain emitted by the satirical July 4th headline on the Babylon Bee:
“Dozens Accept America As Lord And Savior At First Baptist Dallas Service” (here).
The exaggeration only drives home the danger of a more subtle syncretism.
In sum: Nationalism is a cancer to the Kingdom, and one often senses it—like a poorly hidden accent—beneath the chanting of “America First!”
“YES” TO STEWARDSHIP
Even so, I am trying lately to read the claims of others (and especially those I disagree with) in the most charitable way possible. We need that discipline these days especially.
As I’ve said before, I’m thankful for America; and I think a gracious patriotism may be rooted in gratitude instead of nationalism.
So while things like “charity” and “nuance” are Kryptonite to “blog-clicks,” here goes…
Perhaps, in some cases, it is possible to view the words merely as a call to take responsibility for one’s own “household” before moving on to others.
After all, as a father, if I claim to put my family “first,” I need not be implying that others don’t matter, or that my family is more important than my faith. In this case, the words may simply function as a reminder of, say, my duty to parent my own kids before trying to parent everybody else’s.
And if one works within a particular government, there is a clear duty to give priority to one’s own “house” before venturing off to mow all other “yards” and trim other “hedges.”
This need not be nationalism and it need not be sacrilegious.
It might be a form of stewardship, and the priority might be a “first among equals.”
Still, the question is not just what intention lies behind such slogans (for indeed “chants” are rarely the most measured or coherent statements), but what the words connote within the hearts of hearers.
Thus while the catchphrase may not always entail a conscious endorsement of nationalistic syncretism, I still much prefer the attitude described in the age-old Letter to Diognetus.
They live in their own countries, but only as foreigners. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as aliens. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed
“You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.”
That was the line that zinged me from the documentary entitled Minimalism (available on Netflix).
For those not familiar:
Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.
(“The Minimalists,” Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus – see here)
The documentary introduces a wide variety of people, who, despite great “success” in the corporate world, grew dissatisfied with their lives of compulsive consumption.
“We’ve been told that more stuff will make us happy,” they all say, “but that wasn’t the case for me.”
The solution was to shrink their human footprint (often radically), in order to find more time, more money, more freedom, and more meaning.
It worked, allegedly, and each one proudly preached the gospel of minimalism with the zeal of a hemp-shoed televangelist.
JUST ANOTHER FORM OF EXCESS?
From my perspective, there’s much to love about the movement.
Yet I was also struck (occasionally) with the sense that, for some, “minimalism” seemed like just another species of excess and one-upsmanship.
Instead of merely downsizing the McMansion, “true believers” were shown luxuriating in their Derek Zoolander-inspired center-for-ants-sized “tiny homes” (which often retail for more than my last actual house), and gushing about how their lives are so much better now that they have one pair of pants.
“I woke up really SAD one day… And then I realized, it was that second pair of slacks.” ~Fake quote.
This is, of course, an exaggeration—and Joshua and Ryan (“The Minimalists”) are quite keen on tempering such impressions. Minimalism will mean different things to different people. And as they say, it’s not about what you get rid of, it’s about “Everything that Remains” (see here).
Perhaps, then, the extremes are just more interesting to us.
After all, no one watches an A&E show called “Not really a Hoarder, but still kind-of lazy with regard to housework.” No. We want the hardcore stashers—boring mole-like mineshafts through discarded USA Todays.
And so too with the minimalist who makes toothpaste pull triple duty as hair product and underarm deodorant.
Minty fresh, from nave to chops.
We like extremes.
So whether it’s the meta comparison of “Who’s got the bigger boat?” or the micro one-upsmanship of “I live in a van down by the river (for the planet!)”—both poles can represent the same pathology.
But having said all this….
Much of the minimalist mojo fits quite well with Jesus, and especially with his Sermon on the Mount.
“Watch out!” Christ said: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Lk. 12.15). In fact:
23life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.
24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! …
27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well
32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Lk. 12).
So while I will be keeping that second pair of pants, and forgoing the $400 per-square-foot tiny house, I do recommend the documentary for those of us trying to whittle down our excess in service of the Kingdom, and in pursuit of peace.
I needed it.
After all, as Jesus taught the woman at the well (Jn. 4):
You can never get enough of what won’t really satisfy you.
Is it possible that the greatest failure of JFK’s presidency saved the world from nuclear apocalypse?
In recent months I’ve been binge-listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast (check it out here), and in his most recent offering, he delves (for six hours!) into the background of the Cuban missile crisis.
The episode is breezily entitled “Destroyer of Worlds,” and it gives a frightening look at how close we actually came to an atomic Armageddon.
One suggestion for why this didn’t happen, however, has to do with what was undoubtedly the biggest and most public embarrassment of JFK’s young presidency: the Bay of Pigs.
As Carlin points out, Kennedy largely inherited the proxy invasion of Cuba from his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Yet the previous administration had run out of time to carry out the attack. So while JFK reportedly had misgivings (hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it…), he chose to go along with the Generals and CIA officials who assured him that the Bay of Pigs would be a huge success.
The invaders were slaughtered and the ensuing controversy mired the president in a flaming pile of “covfefe” from the early days of his administration.
Even so, Kennedy reportedly learned a lesson from his epic failure: Don’t simply go along with what the experts are telling you. Sometimes the “experts” are wrong.
THIRTEEN DAYS IN OCTOBER
According to some historians, this painful lesson proved invaluable in October 1962.
With word that the Soviets were installing nuclear warheads just 90 miles from the U.S. coast, the president and his advisers began a thirteen-day game of atomic poker.
What we now know from these marathon meetings (because of Kennedy’s secret taping system) is that several generals were urging the president to push the big red button, just as they had previously advised Truman to do the same (even after WW2 was over).
“If you wait, we’re dead” was the logic employed. Thus the “only option” was to launch hundreds of nuclear warheads toward dozens of Russian cities.
While I can’t imagine the pressure of that decision, some historians trace Kennedy’s pursuit of a more diplomatic solution to his early error at the Bay of Pigs.
His prior decision to “shoot first, and ask questions later” had blown up in his face. And that same advice was now coming again, but with greater consequences.
It’s possible then that the memory of Bay of Pigs kept the Cuban crisis from becoming Armageddon.
WHAT’S YOUR BAY OF PIGS?
Of course, not everyone reads the story quite like this (See Garry Wills’ scathing critique of Kennedy’s Cuban policy [here]).
Still, the principle holds true even if the history is complicated.
Early failures can be invaluable if we learn from them.
And in one way or another we all have our “Bay of Pigs.”
Each of us can look back at past decisions that were embarrassing and painful.
There was the choice to flunk out of college freshman year, because beer was more interesting than biology.
There was the decision to turn an ill-advised relationship into an ill-advised marriage.
Or the early and repeated conflation of “cash” with “credit.”
While none of this is quite on par with nuclear holocaust, even smaller embarrassments can serve as sacrifices on the altar of wisdom.
This last weekend brought the first in a four-week class I’m teaching at our church on “Critiques of Christianity.”
This session was on: “The Problem of Evil.”
And sadly, but appropriately, it came after yet another terrorist attack in England.
THE DANGER WITH APOLOGETICS
Terrorism aside, my worry with some “apologetics” is that Christians often approach objections to the faith with “girded loins” and “sword in hand.”
Indeed, one popular (and quite good) apologetics text even features a sword-fighter on the cover, slashing away at an unseen opponent.
To be fair, the illustration is rooted in a biblical call to “contend for the faith” (Jude 1.3) and “give a defense” for “the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3.15). And the Bible itself can speak of being armed with the “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6.17).
Still, the optics of “stab-n-slash” apologetics are (shall we say) not the best for winsome dialogue.
After all, few people change their minds because they lost an argument.
Which brings us to the problem of evil.
For some, the very fact that evil exists is seen as disproving an “all-good” and “all-powerful” God. The claim is quite familiar: If God were all-good, he would not want evil. And if God were all-powerful, he could prevent it.
In response, theists have crafted various “theodicies”—which give answers as to why an all-good and powerful God might nonetheless permit evil.
The most common theodicy is termed the “Greater Good Defense.”
In short, this argument says that perhaps some worthy goods can only be achieved with the presence, or at least the possibility, of evil.
Of course, this all sounds quite rational until one is blindsided—experientially—with a form of evil that is hardly academic:
A child facedown in a backyard pool.
A pedophilic camp counselor.
A cheating spouse.
Or perhaps even harder are those things that we (unfortunately) call “acts of God.” My colleague’s son was killed by a lightning strike.
And to amend the words of Ta-Nihisi Coates: “The [storm cloud] cannot be subpoenaed.” Just ask Job.
TWO ATTEMPTED ANSWERS
Nonetheless, the so-called “Greater Good defense” comes in two major forms: Appeals to divine glory, and appeals to human freedom.
In so-called “glory theodicies,” the greater good is the glory God receives as he contrasts, judges, and ultimately conquers evil.
From this perspective, God is seen as even more exalted, gracious, and holy when set against the dark backdrop of sin and death.
Unfortunately, in some forms (namely: divine determinism), this view also can impugn God’s good character.
After all, a determinist deity seems willing to ordain all manner of atrocities in pursuit of his renown. And what kind of god is that?
Hence, a second and more popular theodicy is called “The free will defense.”
Free Will Theodicies.
The greater good here is not “free will,” but something more significant: the possibility of a genuine love relationships between God and humans.
As the story goes, “Love” requires freedom, and for creatures freedom means the possibility of pain.
In the view of C.S. Lewis:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.
And more extensively:
Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.
But there are issues here as well.
One objection is that the human will seems hardly “free” in many instances. Hence Scripture (e.g., Rom. 7) sometimes paints a picture of the will as being bound apart from God’s grace, and the work of the Holy Spirit
(Incidentally, both Calvin and Wesley agreed on this.).
Our liberty is limited in a thousand ways—by genetics, environment, and other actors.
Hence absolute freedom is a pipe dream. You’d have to be high to believe in it.
The options, then, are that humans either had free will and lost it. Or we retain some measure of it only by God’s grace and Spirit.
Either way, the free will defense (which I actually find quite helpful) still presents us with unanswered questions.
And that brings us to the title of this post.
WE DON’T HAVE A THEODICY, YET
The name of the class I’m teaching (“Critiques of Christianity”) is proudly stolen from one taught by one of my old seminary professors: Dr. Rick Lints.
And as I looked over my old handwritten notes, I found scribbled there this phrase:
“We don’t have a theodicy, yet.”
The point here is not that appeals to glory and freedom are useless, but that they do not fully crack the code of monstrous evil.
They too stand silent before Auschwitz.
And they too fall short when we encounter evil personally. As proof, even C.S. Lewis famously repudiated (if only briefly) his earlier theodicies when his wife Joy died of cancer.
Even he—the greatest “apologist” of the last two centuries—did not yet have an adequate theodicy.
As the Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance argued, evil cannot be rationally explained, because evil is not rational. It exists contra ratio and contra Deum.
After all, what is rational about the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London?
What is rational about the repeated decisions of, say, Anthony Weiner?
Come to think of it: What is rational about some my decisions?
For these and many other reasons, we don’t have an adequate theodicy.
But the next word is important also—“Yet.”
The hope of Christians is not that we will explain evil—but that we will “outlast it.”
Hence the Scriptures (and famously, the book of Job) offer no full answer to “Why bad things happen to good people.”
That’s a modern question, not a biblical one.
In Scripture, we learn only that God opposes evil, that he will one-day end it, and that he invites us to be part of the campaign—frail and faulty though we are.
There is a danger in decrying certain elements of pop culture.
In many cases, the very breath that’s used in criticism serves only to fan the flame you’re trying to extinguish.
Boycotts build bestsellers.
And the best way to ensure the popularity of a book or movie is to try and ban it.
So this is not a move to ban or boycott; but it is a note of quiet resistance to what is now the most controversial show on television: 13 Reasons Why.
The series is an adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel chronicling the tragic life of Hannah Baker, a high schooler who kills herself after leaving behind 13 tapes to explain why she did it.
Each tape is devoted to a different person in Hannah’s life, and together they plot a path of bullying, betrayal, and most horrifically–a brutal rape.
At points, the series is poignant and heartbreaking.
The characters of Hannah and Clay (her love interest) are well cast and well acted. The soundtrack is fantastic, and the buzz around the show proves what has been obvious for some time: network television has long-ceased to tell stories that folks under fifty even remotely care about. (This too was a suicide of sorts – but less lamented.)
At other points, however, the show is badly broken.
And not just for moral reasons.
ONLY THE CLICHÉS EMERGE UNSCATHED
With all the talk of death in 13 Reasons, one thing that lives eternal are the wooden stereotypes.
Indeed, most episodes could have come with a disclaimer that despite appearances, “No clichés were harmed in the making of this mixtape.”
“The popular kids are always mean,” says Hannah. “That’s how they get popular.” No lack of nuance there.
The assessment is fairly simple:
Athletes are dumb and despicable.
Rebels are kind, though misunderstood.
And if you own a letter jacket, you’re half Nazi, half Neanderthal.
While acknowledging that there is some truth to the Darwinian dictum that “the strong eat the weak” within the wild of high school, these sorts of oversimplified clichés are enough to make Saved by the Bell seem complex by comparison.
The real problem, though, runs deeper.
While the show’s intent is (ostensibly) to shine a light on the terrible effects of bullying behavior, many experts say that it will have another consequence: more suicides, not less.
In trying to fight bullying, this show lifts up suicide. It gives the main character a noble way out, a martyrdom of sorts, a tragic but glamorous finale (displayed in graphic detail) that goes against virtually every best practice for addressing suicide responsibly.
For Hannah, suicide is a weapon to be wielded against a culture of shame and brutal violence.
Yet what may escape the audience is that this selfish act merely perpetuates the problem. It continues the graceless cycle of violent shaming. And it ends up valorizing the very beast that devoured Hannah in the first place.
To be sure, Hannah’s predators deserve to be punished—severely. Yet the road she chooses merely reiterates the rapist’s verdict: Some lives are expendable; some bodies are mere means to a vindictive end.
In Wax’s even harsher judgment:
Most people think that 13 Reasons Why is about a group of teenagers, who in their selfish actions and inaction, are responsible for killing a fragile young girl. No. This is a show about how a girl, beyond the grave, kills her classmates.
And I’d add: her parents.
While suicide is complex—with contributing factors like mental illness, clinical depression, and even chronic brain injury—13 Reasons gives little hint that such forces account for Hannah’s choice. She’s just a happy girl who was driven to this end by bullies. What choice did she have?
And that’s a dangerous depiction.
THE OTHER HANNAHS
If there is a silver lining to the show, it is the conversation that it may spark (in places like this) regarding how we ought to deal with bullying, sexual assault, and suicide prevention.
And we must.
The very title of this post was stolen from a message by my friend Aaron Stroman as he preached hope to the high school students in his own youth group.
Instead of 13 Reasons Why, he gave “13 Reasons Why Not.”
Because the Gospel claims that even the darkest moments can be made new.
As a ministry professor, one thing I never expected was the number of students—even from Christian families—who would eventually recount for me a tale that sounds a bit like Hannah’s.
“I was bullied terribly.”
“I was raped in high school.”
“I thought no one would believe me.”
Or worse yet: “No one did.”
Yet unlike Hannah, these women did not take the violent way out. They pursued help and hope and healing.
For such reasons, they are the far more interesting case studies.
They are the ones who deserve an audience.
And I’ve learned far more from them than Hannah Baker.