On Making it Personal (Or, One and Half Cheers for ‘Abstraction’)

If you’ve spent much time discussing any ethical issue of great import, you know there are times when it’s appropriate to ask someone, “What if it was your kid? Would you still take this position? Or hold it this way?” as a way of personalizing and putting flesh on the dilemma under discussion. Nevertheless, there are corresponding moments where you need to ask, “Okay, what if it wasn’t your kid? Would you still look at it this way?” as a way of prodding folks to recognize the way their own personal commitments might be obscuring and biasing their view of the objective issues at hand. Which is to say, both personalization and abstraction, or depersonalization, have their place in the reasoning process.

This basic point is often obscured by much online discussion at the moment: the ability to distinguish people from positions and particular situations from general principles is good and necessary for all sorts of reasons. Even more briefly, abstraction can be good, actually. Depersonalizing and exercising critical distance might be healthy for us.

I offer a few rambling and incomplete thoughts in defense of the latter in what follows.

Skin in the Game and the Reverse Ad Hominem

There are a couple of different ways of personalizing an argument. One is to go on the offense with an ad hominem. “A bourgeoisie like you would say that, wouldn’t you?” In that case, you make the other person’s character, class, or some other personal marker the issue instead of the issue–or rather, you connect the two in order to undermine their argument. Now, that’s actually relevant if the argument is an appeal to authority and credibility based on their character. It also may expose a motivating factor in an argument, but it’s not always relevant, which is why it’s usually considered a fallacy. (Relatedly, as C.S. Lewis points out, even if you can expose someone’s motivating reason underneath an argument, eventually you still have to actually answer the argument.)

Another way of personalizing an argument is by inserting yourself (or perhaps a present, watching, third-party) into the argument—you identify your life, your choices, your own existence with your position. Now, this isn’t always bad. Sometimes personalizing the argument is a way of showing you have skin in the game. In a sermon, putting flesh on a point and demonstrating that you yourself have embraced this truth as a way of life can be valuable for the sake of modeling and purchasing credibility; you are not preaching anything you yourself are not trying to practice. It also may serve to awaken folks to the flesh and blood implications of their positions. Personalizing the argument can bring a qualitative dimension to quantitative analysis in the same way an interview with a subject puts a human face on an impersonal graph or a data set. Finally, a disengaged, abstracted stance is not the ultimate or final state of a rational evaluation of the truth of an issue. Especially when the principle to be applied impacts concrete, flesh-and-blood situations.

Nevertheless, even leaving aside the problem of choosing between normative narratives and experiences we invoke, there are dangers with this approach.

One is that it can easily turn into a way of daring your opponent to engage in an ad hominem of sorts against you. You so identify yourself with the position you’re arguing for, or you make your own story the argument, that nobody can critique the position without (at least implicitly) critiquing you personally. To say your position is wrong is to reject you, your values, your very self. “Refute, deny, or even question my argument, you’re questioning me.” Depending on the context and the participants, this easily becomes emotionally manipulative. “Unless you don’t embrace this doctrine, this social policy, this particular solution to our organizational crisis, you can’t possibly embrace me personally.” This quickly devolves from rational persuasion into relational coercion. It’s a conversation-stopper.

A move like this is especially powerful when done in front of a watching audience where you know you’re the more sympathetic figure. Indeed, the gambit may not even be aimed at the main dialogue partner, but as a way of choosing the audience to pick a side, “him or me?” threatening to functionally reduce rational dialogue into a high-school popularity contest. But people we like can be wrong and people we do not—even for good reasons—can be right. Think of the classic Clickhole article, “Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made a Great Point.” We’ve all seen it happen.

On the Good of Critical Distance
All of this can be exacerbated when the personalized position is articulated within a narrative of trial and pain. When folks are sharing their struggles and pains, one healthy instinct is to want to validate their experiences—to let them know you hear, you care, and are committed to their health and well-being. Asking critical questions, breaking down premises and arguments, sitting back with what appears to be a dispassionate, cold assessment seems potentially emotionally triggering, painful, and communicate a lack of concern. It can also smack of arrogance—how dare you sit in judgment of my own evaluations of my experiences? Or it might be seen (and can often be) a self-defensive mechanism—especially when the narrative might imply an indictment of your own behavior. We should be aware of these things.

Of course, the problem is that we all know none of us is an infallible interpreter of any experience—even our own. How many abuse victims have wrongly blamed themselves for their own suffering? How often have we seen manipulators recount a story in such a way as to excuse their own engagement with others and come to find that they have convinced themselves that is actually the truth of the situation? Or in dealing with our own journeys of healing and sanctification, how often do you recognize that your 25-year-old self’s understanding of the dynamics at work in your own sin and temptation were too clean, too binary, lacking the depth, grain, and texture as you’ve grown in self-awareness, humility, and painful experience?

To take a morally neutral example, it has taken me close to 10 years to find out what actually went wrong with my body when I had something like a full-system collapse at 24. Over the years, as I tried new therapies, went to different doctors, worked my way through various exercise programs, and continued to read online about different joint conditions, I had a variety of evaluations of what the “cause” was: it was “tendinitis”, a doctor’s misdiagnosis, stress-induced over-exercises, spiritual attack, bad diet, poor movement patterns, mis-prescribed pain medication, and so on. Now, looking back at things 10 years on, I think it was probably a mix of all of these factors and a few more. But at any point in my journey, I would have had different evaluations and takeaways—normative prescriptions for how I and others should tackle this problem in the future based on my own self-understanding. And these were not things I held neutrally or at a distance—at times these diagnoses were explanations giving me clarity and hope to deal with my pain.

At just that point we find the value in being about to, at times, distinguish a person from their positions, their story from the moral they’ve drawn, or the validation of an experience as real from a corresponding evaluation of what that experience was. Every good counselor knows that there are moments in a session when what is needed is to listen and validate an experience of pain. They also know that there are moments when what a suffering patient needs is a liberating question, a new lens that helps them reframe their pain and its meaning because they’ve adopted a flawed, self-understanding (“I’m worthless,” “I’ve always got to do it myself”, “I’m the only one who knows what’s going on”), or a universalized maxim (“you can’t trust anybody”) that is warped and crippling their ability to heal and move forward.

In those moments, it is precisely the ability to distinguish a moral from a story, a person from their self-diagnosis, and actually offer substantive critical feedback that is helpful to them. At that moment, the value of a counselor lies precisely in being someone who has enough critical distance from the pain; to be an outside observer who can lovingly disagree.

Critical Distance and Love

This brings me to my brief, final point. I could go on to speak about how good this is for the public square and the churches, for the deliberative process whereby we reason together about issues of great social import, etc. But also on the more personal level, it’s just good for your ability to love those you disagree with (“I don’t agree with you on X, but I still love you”), and for us to recognize and allow folks who disagree with us to love us (“I get that we don’t see eye to eye on this, but I recognize you don’t hate me”). And this can go a long way towards helping us love our ideological enemies in obedience to Jesus’s commands.

We’re humans. We cannot, nor should we, always strive to make arguments impersonal—or rather, to hold our conclusions to those arguments impersonally, especially when they are matters of great ethical import. God gave us more than abstract reason as a mode of discernment. Nevertheless, it is one of his gifts to us, and it is one we neglect to our peril.

No Quarter

One of the most pernicious trends in our current discourse around, well, just about any subject, is the suspicion that you can never concede a point to the other side. Never concede that partisans of your own position might make ridiculous, indefensible claims that render reasonable people rightly suspicious. Never concede that maybe your opponents have latched onto a real, legitimately worrying, social trend, despite the fact you don’t believe its anywhere near as dangerous as the thing you’re worried about. Never concede that perhaps you didn’t see that last slippery slope coming. Never concede that the grifter that infuriates you may not be the best representative of your opponent’s point of view. Never concede that your own side’s grifters are just as intellectually dishonest and culturally corrosive.

Because if you do, you’re a naïve sucker. They’ll take advantage, they’ll gain ground, they’ll drive you from the field. Because they never concede.

Counter-Cultural Bravery is Relative

Once you think about it for a minute, it’s very obvious, but I’ve wanted to make this point for a while: counter-cultural bravery is a relative phenomenon.

Take the obvious example of someone uttering the phrase, “gay sex is a sin before the Lord.” Now, let’s all admit that uttering that statement as a professor while standing in the middle of campus at NYU probably takes some guts. But standing up in the middle of class and saying the same at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary? Not so much. Similarly, it is not very bold to declare, “God accepts LGBT folks and affirms them just as they are” at NYU, but it is bold in the house of Mohler.

Even with this simple example, though, it’s more complicated. Much of one’s ability to do or say ‘controversial’ things has to do with our understanding of their social cost to us in our various, overlapping communities. So if you’re an street-preacher who assumes that getting hate on campus is a sign you’re doing it right, and will be commended in your own street-preacher community, then you’re not worried about that cost. Similarly, if you’re an LGBT activist looking for the approval of or status among your activist friends, and not a Baptist, you’re not really that concerned about getting banned from Southern’s campus. Especially if you can get it on video that will go viral on Twitter.

Indeed, in our current attention-economy, the cost can be the pay-off. This is why we live in a world that tempts us to become trigger-artists and professional martyrs. In Homeric culture, warriors may run great risks, but they stand to reap glory and riches. The same holds for culture warriors in our less-than-Homeric times.

Which is to say a few things.

First, regardless of the truth or the goodness of an opinion, you can find some place where stating it renders you either a safe member of the herd, or a brave, speaker of truths. Courage, then, isn’t just to be determined by the amount of “boldness” something takes, but also with respect to its end. Two folks may demonstrate the same amount of boldness, but one is actually aiming at a true good, while other could be mistakenly aiming at something false, or simply selfishly doing so. And this is just Aristotle.

Second, it’s almost always possible to point to the cost for some position you’re going to take. The conservative writer or seminary prof who can point to all the secular spaces that he won’t get invited to as a result of the sentence he’s about to bravely utter before his own audience. The progressive speaker who will lose some of their conservative audience and speaking opportunities, even as they pick up new audiences and readers precisely by taking the position they are about to take.

I’m not saying that there aren’t actually costs for some folks–people do lose friends, jobs, and general social standing. That said, I am just saying there are times we should cast a more skeptical eye at people whose professional standing depends on twitter-threads going viral, or who stand to gain every time they can quote-tweet someone saying something terrible to them in response as proof of their heroic burden. AND, weirdly enough, there are times we need to slow down in our tendency to write off every social cost real because, hey, that person went viral.

That may sound contradictory, but I don’t think it is if you begin to apply those principles against the grain of our general tendency to write off the social cost to our opponents and empathize with our allies. We take costs that we’re more likely to suffer more seriously than those that threaten our opponents, and we similarly minimize the benefits we stand to gain. I’m just saying we should maybe flip that a little more.

 

Revisiting the Progressive Evangelical Package (Mere-O)

A few years ago I wrote a piece for Mere O called, “The Progressive Evangelical Package.” It probably helps to read it before proceeding. Simply put, though, before the language of “tribes” and “tribal thinking” became lingua franca, I tried to point out  that Progressive Evangelicals had a developing orthodoxy of key doctrines just as much as conservative Calvinists did. I did that by identifying seven of them, trying to pinpoint some of the underlying, causal roots funding this cluster as a whole, and inviting folks to recognize that social pressure was being exerted on them to conform to it.

My thought was that folks were starting to find each other due to certain overlapping critiques, or a couple of shared positions, and build friendships and informal coalitions. As that happened, the folks who only affirmed three or four planks would be pushed to affirm all seven or so to belong in much the same way that folks in more conservative wings did. It wasn’t meant as an out-and-out critique (indeed, I said as much), but more as a descriptive project. In a sense, I just wanted to analyze and name something I saw that I didn’t see anybody really owning.

In this post I want to briefly revisit the package and chart some points where I think I got it right, some where I got it wrong, and note some developments that have occurred in the meantime. Mostly for my own analytical benefit, I suppose, but hopefully it can also be of use to those who spend any amount of time trying to understand one corner of the ever-shifting, Evangelical public landscape.

You can read the rest at Mere Orthodoxy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Michal, the Worship Cynic

a son to meThe story of the return of the Ark to Jerusalem is fascinating and multi-layered (2 Samuel 6). The theology surrounding the punishment of Uzzah’s transgression against the ark. The blessing of the house of Obed-Edom, a Gentile. And, of course, the sight of the King of Israel dancing in the street with a linen ephod, before the whole of the nation. And of course, there is the negative reaction of his wife Michal to the whole display.

Seeing the whole thing go down, instead of seeing the glory of Israel returning, she only saw a shameful performance by David and she despised him. When David returns, she reproaches him to his face, telling him he had disgraced himself by dancing half-naked in front of slave-girls just like any common fool on the street (v. 20).

David’s response is classic. He tells her, first off, he was dancing before the Lord (“you know, the one who picked me over your dad to be king of Israel”) and before him, he’ll be even more undignified (21-22). Second, anybody with spiritual eyes–even servant girls–will recognize his humility and righteousness in doing so (22).

Now, when I was a kid, I remember learning the story and not understanding the hardness in Michal’s heart. Why did she not rejoice as David rejoiced? Why could she not see the blessing of the Ark? How could she not understand the lesson I was learning in Sunday School that day? Surely the Lord is worthy of our most ecstatic worship, and our own dignity isn’t anything to be concerned with.

But then you start to reflect on the story of Michal and the thing becomes more complex. Yes, there was a worldly judgment in her heart about what was appropriate for the king. Yes, she sinned in scorning the return of the Ark. Still, Peter Leithart makes a perceptive qualifying comment worth considering:

Yet, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for here. She had been taken from a loving husband and brought into a house full of wives and concubines. Her bitterness was understandable. And, while David was sincere in dancing before the Lord, Michal’s charge that he was more interested in the young women was prescient. (A Son to Me, 196)

Michal was in this case sinfully cynical. But understandably so. She had been hurt when David took her back into his household, away from a husband who seemed to love and care for her. He was not a full-blown Solomon, but he had been multiplying wives contrary to the command for kings (Deut. 17:17). It did not all seem political.

Where am I going with this?

Well, I don’t know about you, but having grown up the church, I am often tempted to cynicism much spirituality and piety. I am especially prone to doubt it when I have something against someone.

Maybe it’s someone who has wronged me, or someone I know. Maybe I’ve seen them be vindictive, spiteful, crass, or manipulative. Maybe it’s someone whose online persona (and theological positions) I find troubling  and frustrating. In those moments, I just think it’s wise to have a care with my cynical judgments on their spiritual life and their praise of God. The Lord has only ever had sinners as his true worshipers. Including me.

Obviously, this is not an absolute. Yes, we are called to exercise discernment. Yes, the prophets called out false worship. Yes, Jesus went after the Pharisees for their pious displays. And nevertheless, we can sin if our cynical eye leads us to despise or call false the true worship of the Lord. We can get this really wrong.

Second, have mercy on the cynical Michal’s. You don’t have to go along with their cynicism, but it is always wise to consider what has led them to this point. Especially if you are ever called to engage, to love, or pastor them.

Soli Deo Gloria

Perhaps Just One More Thesis on Church Discipline?

Wes Hill has written a provocative reflection on the matter of church discipline (or seeming lack thereof) in the Episcopal and Anglican communions. Framed around the challenge of his Reformed friends about why these churches seem never to ask people committing flagrant, public sin to refrain from communion, he forwards five theses on Church discipline. Now, as with just about anything Wes writes, it’s all very thoughtful and worthwhile to engage with.

To summarize, as one of those Reformed folks with questions about Anglicanism, I’ll say that I sympathize broadly with the piece. I think thesis #1 is very over-stated, but much of the problem with disciplining individual members for sexual failures does ignore the broad context of pastoral and disciplinary failure in the church as a whole. I see this with badly catechized college kids all the time. In that sense, yes, we’re all complicit here. What’s more, in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, conversion on these culturally-disputed matters takes time. Finally, we need to exercise patience in our recovery or rediscovery of the practice of discipline, especially when we consider that discipline is aimed at forgiveness.

All of this reminds me of Lewis’s words about the way God may judge different generations by different standards with respect to different sins. Cultural forces, church failures, etc. can indeed shape the moral subject and make obedience on certain issues harder or more confusing than at other times in church history. I do think this is one area where that is true for our age (though not absolutely), in the way that other issues were in others.

That said, it’s precisely for that reason my mind returns to the earlier conversations around “orthodoxy” language being used for matters of sexuality, or on the sort of labels we affix to pastors, theologians, and priests who teach contrary to Scripture on these matters. Should we call them, the pastors in charge of God’s flock, false teachers or no? Is this an orthodoxy or catholicity issue, or not? And should we say so?

Which is to say, my biggest question with Wes’s piece is that I don’t see a clear answer on what seems to be the deepest issue of discipline within the Anglican or Episcopal church, which is not the sinful laity, but the fact that the clergy are not held to account for explicitly teaching that things that ought not be done can be done. As with Israel, It is the theological laxity and moral corruption of the priests who do not guide or guard the sheep which is the prior issue (Ezek 34). If discipline is to be recovered, it seems wise to start at the top. Otherwise we will never start.

Or again, if the matter is the lack of catechesis and moral instruction of the church, then it seems all the more important we use strong language to communicate just how wide a departure these teachers have taken from Scripture and the catholic tradition. We may exercise patience with individuals, yes. But such patience paired with a broader unwillingness to use the clearest possible language about about the issue is exactly the sort of thing which yields the situation Wes is lamenting.

It is that language, and that clarity, I’m not at all sure I find in Wes’s proposal. Perhaps, then, one more thesis is needed?

Soli Deo Gloria

 

the call to sexual holiness is unavoidable

Recently at London Review of Books, Amia Srinivasan published a very interesting and very profane (reader warning) article entitled, “Does Anyone Have the Right to Sex?

She begins by examining the case of Elliot Rodger, the disturbed young man who went on a rampage in Isla Vista in protest of his status as an incel (an involutary celibate, ie. someone who can’t get sex), and killed roommates, sorority girls, and caused general mayhem as part of his perverted quest for ‘justice.’ With this story as our departure, it becomes fairly obvious that the answer to the titular question is, “No, nobody has the right to have sex” and none of the young women who had refused Rodgers had wronged him.

But then Srinivasan goes on to complicate the matter through a long, extensive, instructive dive through the history of feminist and queer reflection on “the political critique of desire,” which interrogates the shape of our sexual desires. For those unfamiliar with it (as I myself largely am, getting most of my knowledge second-hand from long articles such as this), she charts the stages of conversation from Catherine Mackinnon’s critique Freud’s portrait of sexual desire as pre-political, to seeing it as inherently corrupted and shaped by patriarchal ideological structures of dominance, etc. and correspondingly calling for political lesbianism and so forth.

Now, in the 80s and 90s came the backlash of the pro-sex feminists. They championed the importance of allowing women to pursue what they genuinely felt was pleasurable in the manner and means they wanted, without some neo-Victorian schema to foist guilt upon them once more. To this were added concerns from intersectional analysis which made theorists even more wary about universal moral prescriptions that really only fit the situations of white feminists. Furthermore, there was an increasingly discomfort with the concept of false consciousness, which the political critique assumes, and so you have to start taking women at their word when they say whatever sexual activity (be it sex-work, porn, nudity, etc.) is sexually liberating.

From there we get further development and refinement to the point where now the main concern and boundary line of OK sex is “consent”, and the free exchange of sexual goods. Of course, that may provoke the worry and critique that this plays right into the hands of capitalist neo-liberal conceptions of the self that ought to be questioned. But this shouldn’t be raised in such a way that we fall back into guilt and authoritarianism, which would fetter and bind the right of consenting agents to their preferred sexual acts. Remember, talking about what people ought to want and desire is a quick road to political oppression.

But then we come back around to questioning, “but why do we desire what we desire?” Especially when we still can’t shake the feeling that under the constraints and pressures of a patriarchal culture, our desires are not fully free or unproblematic. And this is where it gets interesting (and for context, she has been engaging with Ellen Willis’ essay “Lust horizons” up at this point):

When we see consent as the sole constraint on OK sex, we are pushed towards a naturalisation of sexual preference in which the rape fantasy becomes a primordial rather than a political fact. But not only the rape fantasy. Consider the supreme f#$%ability of ‘hot blonde sluts’ and East Asian women, the comparative unf#$%ability of black women and Asian men, the fetishisation and fear of black male sexuality, the sexual disgust expressed towards disabled, trans and fat bodies. These too are political facts, which a truly intersectional feminism should demand that we take seriously. But the sex-positive gaze, unmoored from Willis’s call to ambivalence, threatens to neutralise these facts, treating them as pre-political givens. In other words, the sex-positive gaze risks covering not only for misogyny, but for racism, ableism, transphobia, and every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom through the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference’.

This is the wrench that contemporary intersectional concerns throw into a purely consent-based, desire-driven account of sexuality. It can easily function as a cover for all sorts of sexual discrimination and exclusion under the guise of just affirming whatever sexual desires someone finds within themselves. But what if those desires are racist, transphobic, fat-shaming, and so forth? Shouldn’t those desires be different? Shouldn’t we discourage them? But how, without falling back into authoritarianism?

The argument cuts both ways. If all desire must be immune from political critique, then so must the desires that exclude and marginalise trans women: not just erotic desires for certain kinds of body, but the desire not to share womanhood itself with the ‘wrong’ kinds of woman. The dichotomy between identity and desire, as Chu suggests, is surely a false one; and in any case the rights of trans people should not rest on it, any more than the rights of gay people should rest on the idea that homosexuality is innate rather than chosen (a matter of who gay people are rather than what they want). But a feminism that totally abjures the political critique of desire is a feminism with little to say about the injustices of exclusion and misrecognition suffered by the women who arguably need feminism the most.

Srinivasan continues her analysis along these lines for some time, tracing the problematic bind these tensions generate. She concludes with this humdinger of a paragraph:

To take this question seriously requires that we recognise that the very idea of fixed sexual preference is political, not metaphysical. As a matter of good politics, we treat the preferences of others as sacred: we are rightly wary of speaking of what people really want, or what some idealised version of them would want. That way, we know, authoritarianism lies. This is true, most of all, in sex, where invocations of real or ideal desires have long been used as a cover for the rape of women and gay men. But the fact is that our sexual preferences can and do alter, sometimes under the operation of our own wills – not automatically, but not impossibly either. What’s more, sexual desire doesn’t always neatly conform to our own sense of it, as generations of gay men and women can attest. Desire can take us by surprise, leading us somewhere we hadn’t imagined we would ever go, or towards someone we never thought we would lust after, or love. In the very best cases, the cases that perhaps ground our best hope, desire can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself.

This is an astonishing ending that posits placing hope in the ability of our sexual desire itself to surprise us and set us free from the shackle politics. Perhaps Aphrodite truly does hold the key to liberation?

Now, I don’t have a really substantial critique of Srinivasan’s piece–for that, see Carl Trueman’s incisive piece–except to make two quick comments.

First, that last line just cries out for an Augustinian analysis of both the problem of the bound will and the way idols somehow manage to keep tricking us into believing that trusting one idol will set you free from another. We really do need a City of God for a new age.

Second, and this is the more striking (if a bit obvious) point to me: the call to sexual holiness is unavoidable. Srinivasan is not a Christian, nor does she espouse anything close to a Christian sexual ethic, but as her reflections make clear, leaving behind a Christian normative frame does not solve the problematic, obviously disordered nature of our sexual desires. As Alastair Roberts has noted, the contemporary choice is not one of simply abandoning sexual morality, but of trading it in for another.

And so while you may not have a problem with pre-marital sex, pornography, same-sex desires, or consenting polyamorous adults doing their thing, but the reality is that on just about any moral framework, you’re eventually going to be asked to consider that your desires are in some way distorted, deformed, and whether “there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires” so they are not conformed to the (patriarchal, capitalist, etc.) pattern of this world.

There is no question, then, about the call to sexual holiness in the world. We all know deep down we need it and we ought to strive for it. The question is who sets the terms: Jesus, or someone else.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Protestant Note Or Two on “Silence” a Year Out

silenceI know I’m late to the game, but I finally watched Scorcese’s film adaptation of  Shūsaku Endō’s novel “Silence” this last weekend. My wife and I took it in two parts, since I don’t do well with martyrdom stories. (I don’t think I am a crier, but I confess, I weep easily at these accounts.) As everyone said, it was a well-done film; moving, beautifully shot, and offering much rich material for reflection.

I am not sure it’s helpful for me to rehash much of the commentary–certainly not as a film critic. For what it’s worth, I found Alissa Wilkinson’s review a helpful one for situating the work historically, both in relation to Endō’s novel and Scorcese’s oeuvre. She has a sensitive, critical eye. Also, Matt Anderson and Alastair Roberts had our friend Brett McCracken on an episode of Mere Fidelity to chat about it, and all three had thought-provoking input.

Beyond that, I just wanted to add a couple of quick Protestant thoughts that occurred to me while watching.

Apostasy, the Immanent Frame, and Resurrection

On what might be the central question of the film–the righteousness of Rodrigues’ apostasy in order to “save” the Japanese Christians, I found Jake Meador’s comments most helpful. As he points out, Biblical faith is the faith of the martyrs. I do think the Church is to offer grace for the weak, for the apostate–I am not a Donatist. And let’s be honest, in a similar position, I don’t know that I would have that strength.

But the faith Scripture holds out for us (that of Daniel, of Christ, of the Martyred Apostles, of Polycarp) encourages us to receive our crown for confession, not denying the Father (or the Son) before men (Matt. 10:33). Indeed, in the desert, Christ will not kneel to the Accuser for all the kingdoms of the world–imagine all the good he could do!–if that means denying God.

On a Protestant note, Calvin and many of the Reformers did not think much of the Nicodemites, those who concealed their Protestant convictions in Roman Catholic France and elsewhere, celebrating the Mass and so forth. They thought the choice was either running into exile, or public confession unto mission and the risk of martyrdom. Though, again, they believed God was merciful to those in difficult trials.

I’ll add here that Rodrigues’ assumption in trampling (and the argument of the Inquisitors to this effect) was that to save the Japanese Christians from temporal suffering was to save them from the suffering that truly mattered. Indeed, this is part of what marks the novel and the film as particularly modern, despite being set in the 17th century.  Stuck in the Immanent Frame” (Taylor), where this-worldly good is the only kind that feels truly real, the weight of God’s “silence” in the face of the death of his saints is particularly overwhelming. (One wonders how much the “New View of Heaven” Todd Billings speaks of, plays into this.)

All the same, that is not at all the presumption of Christ who told his disciples, “do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do” (Luke 12:4). He even states, paradoxically:

You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Luke 21:16-19)

Of course, this only makes sense in light of the resurrection. The same goes for many of his other promises of repayment and restoration of everything sacrificed for Christ in the coming kingdom (Matt. 10:30). Kingdom ethics has always been a death-and-resurrection ethic. Which makes sense, given that the death and resurrection of Christ are at the the heart of the Christian faith.

For Rodrigues to trample, then, was to (understandably) fail his people, by robbing them of the comfort and encouragement of the gospel of resurrection they needed in such a trying time. And this was so especially as their Roman Catholic priest.

Which brings me to another point that nagged me throughout as a specifically Protestant viewer.

Priesthood of All Believers

As I watched I was overwhelmed by the heartbreaking need of the Japanese villagers. Oppressed politically, economically, and spiritually, the villagers needed the priests. Not only as pastors offering instruction, comfort, and counsel. According to their theology of priestly mediation, they needed them to be the Church. As Rodrigues says at one point, “If Garrpe [his fellow priest] and I die, then the Church in Japan dies.” Of course, everything Evangelical in me wanted to yell, “Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am present!” But he was right.

There is no priesthood of all believers there. Without ordained priests, these saints could not confess their sins to one another, nor declare to one another the definitive forgiveness of Christ in the gospel. And while there were measures for emergency baptisms, none could receive what they took to be the life-giving sustenance of the transubstantiated Body of Christ in the Eucharist because there was no priest to perform the Mass. Incidentally, this is the other dimension to Rodrigues’ failure: by apostatizing, according to his own theology he himself collaborates in killing the church in Japan.

Of course, one can only admire the Roman Catholic missionaries who did go, since the reality at the time-setting of the film was that Protestants were still mostly focused on the mission to Christendom and consolidating the gains of the Reformation.

And so I watched, in awe of the faith of these heroic villagers who were oppressed by a the State for their faith, dying with the name of “Deus” on their lips, singing hymns. And yet it was beyond tragic to see the way even the form of the faith given them had denied them and their families some of the comforts of the gospel which are their right as adopted children of God.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Annihilation, Ubiquitous Weirdness, and Revealing the Alien

Annihliation_effect

This past Sunday night, my wife and I went to see the film Annihiliation. We had not read the book, and I’m usually not one for horror films, even sci-fi ones, but the previews looked intriguing. It was a provocative, visually-overwhelming, and somewhat disturbing film. (Warning: it had some surprising moments of violence.)

I’ve continued to come back to the film in my mind over the last week or so, and I wanted to briefly write up some disconnected thoughts on the matter–ones that may only make sense if you’ve seen the movie. This isn’t film criticism, a review, or an attempt at interpretation. I’m not competent to those tasks. It is rather more a couple of rough, theological reflections on the alien and the Other provoked by my experience of watching the film.

The Ubiquitous Weirdness of the Bible

The first thing struck me and drew me to the film, even in the previews, was the visual weirdness of The Shimmer–the alien phenomena at the center of the plot: the translucent glow, the bizarre landscapes of humanoid flower constructions, the astonishing and ghastly hybridized animal life, and architecturally-improbable glass towers.

Part of the beauty and the freaky peculiarity of it was the way it took the familiar and made it alien. I mean, deer with branches covered in flowers for antlers is arresting and lovely. But then, when I stop and think about it, the fact that deer have antlers sticking out of their head at all is just odd. Witnessing the familiar transformed reminded me of how odd the familiar actually is.

Now, providentially enough, I just happened to be working my way through Vern Poythress’s new book Theophany. Reading through text after text in the OT I kept thinking, “Man, the Bible is a ubiquitously weird book.”

Bushes that burn yet are not consumed. Seas that split open like the ground in an earthquake. Rivers turn to blood. Men that glow in the dark. Golden boxes that are deadly to the touch. Mountains covered in smoke, lightning, and fire. Angels appearing in burning furnaces. Demons and giants. Speaking Tornadoes.

If you’ve grown up with this book you’re whole life–especially reading these stories in little blank print on plain white tissue paper–it is so easy to breeze by the awesome terror, the excessive grandeur of these narratives. There is something alien about the world of the Bible. And yet here is the truly exhilarating claim: that is our world.

Reading the Bible is supposed to have something of the same effect the film had on me: it is supposed to shock open your eyes to this alien world we inhabit.

Alien Revelation

Even more striking to me was the issue of the otherness of the “alien” reality. Think of Star Trek or Star Wars and you see most of the alien and sci-fi universes depicted on screen are either anthropomorphic figures or bestialized variants on forms we already know. Not only that, their motivations, their loves, their hates, and so forth, exist within the range of the humanly-graspable. Perhaps they are more powerful, or ugly, or beautiful, but they are recognizable, nevertheless.

This was not the case with Annihilation, (nor the Heptapods of Arrival, I would argue). Here we encounter the truly unnerving and inscrutable Other. Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Aliens here are numinous, filling you with a sense of creaturely-dread in the face of a power that you have no grid for understanding. And why should we? They are aliens.

Of course, my own thoughts turn heavenward at that point. Something of this inscrutability, alien Otherness, and dread is what we see in Scripture. Who can understand the mind of the Lord? Who can recount his ways? How do you get a handle on the understanding and motivations of a being whose intellect and power are sufficient to bring about the cosmos (billions of galaxies and stars large) into existence?

Which is why an encounter with the Lord in Scripture usually produces fear and trembling. Israel before Mt. Sinai. Isaiah undone before the majesty of God’s throne in the Temple. Ezekiel’s acid trip before chariot with the wheels within wheels. Job before the Whirlwind. Annihilation reminded me of some of the tremor one should probably feel in the bones when reading such texts.

But here the difference asserts itself. At Sinai, God gives the Law. In the Temple, the Holy One commissions Isaiah. The figure on the throne-chariot addresses Ezekiel, the Son of Man. The Whirlwind speaks.

In Scripture, the weird, the terrifying, the alien experiences of God are not just assertions of power, of alien force, of the need for terror, but fundamentally acts of communication and self-revelation, and therefore grace. God makes himself known in the fire to Moses in order to proclaim the day of salvation for Israel. Isaiah and Ezekiel are sent to warn against sin and preach hope. There are no answers in the Whirlwind, but there is assurance.

And of course, finally, there is the incarnation of the Son, the Word God speaks. The God beyond us comes near, the Ultimate Other becomes one of us. In him, flesh of our flesh, we see the heart of God made truly known.*

As always, there is more to explore, especially at the rich anthropological themes, but since this is just a quick couple of reflections, I’ll just leave things there for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

*Of course, it would be interesting to delve into what impact the extra-Calvinisticum has on this dynamic of revelation. The Son of God comes truly in the flesh, but he nevertheless exists beyond it. God reveals himself truly, but the finite cannot fully contain the infinite. There is always a beyondness to God.

The Proper Use and Abuse of Hypocrisy-Checking

hypocrisy juking

Everybody’s an inconsistent hypocrite. At least, that’s the lesson the internet is teaching us in 2018. (In case we hadn’t learned it from Scripture already.) I’m referring, of course, to the ever-present (and much commented-on) practice of hypocrisy-juking and various forms of whataboutism.

I was struck by it once again yesterday, when a number of conservative friends began to (correctly) point out the relative silence of progressive Evangelical bloggers and commentators on the failure of Congress to pass the ban on elective abortions at 20-weeks, when the child in question can obviously feel pain.

Now, this shouldn’t have been hard to pass nor to condemn and lament. It’s not a radically pro-life position on the matter. Most progressive European countries don’t allow the practice to be elective that late; the US is in the company of only seven other countries with abortion regimes as permissive as ours, including China and North Korea.

What was striking to my conservative friends was that you’ll frequently find progressive Evangelicals loudly (and perhaps rightly) arguing for various other policy measures (single-payer, immigration reform) along the lines of being holistically, or truly Pro-Life, and then decrying Congressional failure to act on these policies, and Evangelicals for failing to support them.

And yet, when it comes to a policy that is directly and indisputably Pro-Life? Crickets. One wonders why.

Maybe everybody was just focused on other issues that day? Or perhaps, given the increasingly tribal way we engage in moral outrage, there was a fear on the part of newly Progressive Evangelicals at offending or alienating their new-found allies on other issues of great moral concern? Is it a desire to avoid being perceived as one of those Pro-Lifers? The kind they left behind with the rest of their small-minded bigotry? Most cynically, perhaps they don’t care about pro-life anymore at all and simply use the language to engage Evangelicals on their issues of real concern.

Maybe Richard Beck has a point in warning his own tribe of progressives about just turning into Democrats the way conservative Evangelicals became knee-jerk Republicans.

Now, if you’re a conservative Evangelical of a certain sort, these last few paragraphs may have given you a nice, warm sense of satisfaction inside. I could suggest many reasons for it, but one might be the sheer relief of seeing someone other than the conservative Evangelical leaders who have been beclowning themselves in a Carnivalesque fashion through series of attempts to justify President Trump’s various gaffes and sins being called out. The list of cynical justifications, hypocritical back-tracking, willful blindness, and cowardly silences is truly cringe-inducing. Volumes could be written on the failure of moral voices in 2017 alone.

The point is, we could play the, “If Obama had said…” and “If Bush had done…” and “If Clinton had been…” game until the cows come home and we could all be right about someone. And more importantly, someone could probably be right about us.

Which brings me back around again to the broader question of hypocrisy-juking. Why do we engage in it? Also, are there proper uses for it? If so, how? And how ought we respond to it?

On the first question, I can think of a few reasons.

First, it’s just satisfying to take your ideological enemies down a peg. This is especially the case if you see them as prone to a specific kind of preening self-righteousness and grandstanding, with little self-reflection or humility. Catching out their inconsistencies can assure you of their basic wrongness and your basic rightness.

Connected to this, it can be a way of assuaging your own conscience for your own inconsistencies. You may not state it this way, but the basic tu quoque can be a rationalization: everybody does it. Look! They do it too.

More nobly, you may actually be interested in issuing a moral warning. Some people are actually interested in dialoguing and arguing with a principled opposition. You may see someone you disagree with and respect generally, falling into the sort of self-justifying hypocrisy, or an inconsistency born of moral cowardice and a need to fit the tribe, and feel the need to reach out and warn them to avoid it. Now, this can turn into concern-trolling fairly quickly, but I have seen it done (and had it done to me) in good faith.

Finally, and this is an extension of the last point, you may actually be interested in persuasion. Instead of just pushing people down a peg, you may desire to convince them to change their mind on a particular issue given their historic stance, or their stated principles elsewhere. In which case, something like hypocrisy-juking may be in order. (One thinks of Jesus grilling the Pharisees for tithing mint and dill for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, despite adhering rigidly to the minor ones.)

I think we can already see that in these last two reasons, we some place for it. But in the case of persuasion and warning, the act of pointing out hypocrisy and inconsistency ceases to be an act of “juking.” The moral intention, the heart behind it, transforms the act into one of righteous and (in the end) loving exposure and correction.

The last two questions, I think, are caught up with one another and are answered in Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:3-5)

Only the person who is committed to removing the plank from their own eye, to rigorously pursuing intellectual and moral integrity in their own life and thought, will be suited to attempt to remove the speck from their brother’s. This, both because they are now seeing more clearly, and also because one of the things they see more clearly is their own sin, corruption, and guilt in the matter. This leads to a humble heart not set on vengeance or the vindication of their own name and tribe.

But, of course, in order to be this person, you must be prepared to accept your brother’s help in removing the plank from your eye as well!

All of which is to say, when tempted to point out the hypocrisy in an opponent’s position, check yourself in the matter first. You may quickly find the self-righteousness drained from your stinging remarks. Which, ironically enough, means you’ll be more likely to frame them in a way that people on the other side will hear them.

On the flipside, the wise accept rebuke and become wiser still (Prov. 9:8-9). And this, even from harsh or bad-faith critics. It may be that you know someone is critiquing you just to take you down a peg or to protect themselves. Before you write them off as a fool, ask yourself, “But do they have a point?” If so, correct it. If they have a point, they have a point.

Correct it because it is right, but also, the next time someone tries to critique you along those lines, you can actually be confident it is wrong. Indeed, you may even be able to share the way you have changed and that may be a model for your interlocutor.

Growth in grace here is difficult, and I don’t think for a moment I have this down. Still, given the toxicity of the cultural moment, one of the greatest ways to witness to the forgiveness, mercy, and transforming power of the gospel in our lives is to manifest it in our humble struggle for integrity.

Because the reality is, our greatest resource in any of this is in letting go of our sinful attempts at self-justification because we know by the witness of the Holy Spirit we have justified in Christ.

Maybe take some time now to log off and meditate on that.

Soli Deo Gloria