Alastair: Twitter Is Like Elizabeth Bennet’s Meryton

Today I wish to direct your attention to a piece by Alastair Roberts at Mere Orthodoxy entitled “Twitter Is Like Elizabeth Bennet’s Meryton“.

In this piece Alastair takes a long and critical look at the quality of social interaction and relationship that is prevalent on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.  His jumping-off point is an article by William Deresiewicz which analyzes communal judgment as seen in Pride and Prejudice.

Meryton is a small community in the English countryside which consists of a cluster of large mansions and a small town center with a few shops and a tavern.  It is this community, the gentry and their families which make up this community, which are central to Pride and Prejudice.  Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine, is a product of this community, formed almost entirely by the ways in which this community talks, relates, and exerts influence.  Deresiewicz describes the Meryton community as a “saturated social environment, an environment in which no space exists that is not social”.  All the relationships in Meryton have multiple layers.  For example, consider Bingley’s younger sister Caroline.  She is Elizabeth’s friend, but she is also Elizabeth’s sister’s friend, and she is also Elizabeth’s sister’s love-interest’s sister.  That’s three relationships all rolled up into one.  And all the other relationships in Meryton are like that.  This sort of dense community has its advantages, in that it provides ample opportunity for people to get to know each other deeply outside of romantic relationship, and for genuine, deep non-romantic relationships to form.

But there is a dark side.  The community places a very heavy emphasis upon concord and agreement, and cannot tolerate contradiction.  If someone says something which is at variance, it is taken up, apparently agreed with, but then pivoted in a different direction to bring it back into the limits of accepted opinion.  Thus the conversation is the sum total of all its contributions, and the implicit idea is that every voice is valid.  The only voices which can be directly contradicted are those which come from outside the community.  In other words, important differences are smoothed over for the sake of social harmony, and contradiction cannot be admitted.  This has the effect of stifling careful and critical thought and judgment.

From here Alastair draws the connection to the world of present-day social media.  He introduces the concept of “communication of presence”–the idea that certain types of conversation, i. e. “small talk”, serve not so much to convey information as to convey presence, that is, to break the silence and forge connection between people by talking about something–anything.  Talking about subjects like the weather, sports, or celebrity gossip can provide an avenue for the sort of bonding that permits the discussion of more consequential subjects and the airing of real differences.

He then goes on to note technology’s influence upon our communication.  For example, the telegraph, when it was invented, made possible for the first time communication between Texas and Maine, two places which previously had nothing to say to each other, and thereby made possible the formation of a collective American ideology.  If the telegraph had such a profound impact on our society, then how much more so the smartphone and the internet.

These two inventions serve to create an especially saturated social environment.  The smartphone is carried with you at all times, and it keeps you connected to the presence of thousands of people who are never more than a text or Facebook message away.  It collapses social boundaries in several ways, such as substituting for the mediation of the body, negating physical space, speeding up interactions, and collapsing boundaries between social groups and circles.  As a result, we are all brought much closer together, in something akin to the dense community of Austen’s Meryton.  Yet there is a dark side:  this new virtual community has a much less differentiated social order, without the distinction of social spaces, roles, voices, conversations, and quality of attention required for careful thought and judgment and the development of a robust self-identity.  As such, this community is extremely susceptible to all the impulses of herd dynamics, fashions and fads, and collective outrage/violence.  In essence, this community becomes an echo chamber in which all our worst prejudices are affirmed and in which any sort of careful, critical thought is discouraged.

This is a lengthy piece, and Alastair is very careful and thorough in laying out his argument, as is the case with much of his writing.  But if you will exert the effort to get through it and reflect on what he has to say about technology and social connection and how we can move toward better use of technology in our social lives, you will find it to be worth the effort and you will be better for it.

Read: Twitter Is Like Elizabeth Bennet’s Meryton by Alastair Roberts

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Alastair: The Politics of Extraordinary Ordinariness

Today I direct your attention to a post by Alastair Roberts at Political Theology Today.  In this piece he looks at Deuteronomy 4, noting that the primary means by which Israel will differentiate itself from the surrounding nations is by faithful obedience to the law.  As a result of this obedience, Israel will be praised and honored by its neighbors for its wisdom; these accolades are typically reserved for a wise ruler but in this case they will extend to the entire nation.  Through Israel’s obedience, the surrounding nations would see God’s nearness to them, a proximity much closer than that of any of the idols of the surrounding nations.  The surrounding nations would also see the justice of Israel’s law, in that it provides for the liberation of all Israel’s social relations, with the poor, orphans and widows, strangers, debtors, and slaves.  In short, Israel’s place among the nations would be secured by faithful obedience to the law.

This is in contrast to how much of modern evangelicalism engages the outside world.  We see our primary political task as one of prophetic engagement, but this comes at the neglect of what is truly our primary political task, namely being a “city set on a hill”, showcasing a life of fellowship with God in a manner both compelling and convicting to the watching world.  The New Testament epistles are rife with exhortations to live lives of submission to the authorities, peacefulness, gentleness, humility, and minding our own business, so that at the end of the day even our staunchest opponents have nothing evil to say of us.  These exhortations stand as an embarrassment to those of us who value prophetic activism and culture-war methods.

Read: The Politics of Extraordinary Ordinariness by Alastair Roberts

Les Miserables 89: What Horizon Is Visible from the Top of the Barricade

lesmiserablesLast time we saw Jean Valjean.  We saw his arrival at Rue de l’Homme Armee, Cosette’s despair over not seeing Marius again, and the effect of Cosette’s note on him, which ultimately led him to the barricade.

At this point there is a lull in the fighting.  Dawn has come but it will still be a few hours until people are awake.  Recall that in Paris the summer nights are much shorter than here in Georgia; it stays light until around 11 PM and the sun starts to come up around 2 or 3 AM.

Enjolras has mounted the barricade and he makes a lengthy speech on the revolutionary principles that they are fighting for.  Remember that Enjolras is the product of a specific era in history; it is interesting to consider his speech in light of where we are today.  He speaks of universal public education as a light that will melt away all of society’s ills; we in America have had universal public education for over a century and we might beg to differ with that.  Enjolras predicted that the twentieth century would be a happy time when men would no longer have to fear war or conquest; two world wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation for much of the century have pretty much put an end to that.

Recall that everyone in this barricade is for all intents and purposes under a death sentence.  Barring a miracle, no one is making it out of there alive.  Marius is very much aware of this, and is deeply troubled by it:

…nothing seemed any more to him now than a dream.  His understanding was troubled.  Marius, we must insist, was under the shadow of the great black wings that open above the dying.  He felt he had entered the tomb; it seemed to him that he was already on the other side of the wall, and he no longer saw the faces of the living except with the eyes of the dead.

How did M. Fauchelevent come to be there?  Why was he there?  What had he come to do?  Marius asked himself none of these questions.  Besides, since our despair has the peculiarity of including others as well as ourselves, it seemed logical to him that everybody should come to die.

Except that he thought of Cosette with a pang.

Marius recognized Valjean.  He only knew him as Fauchelevent; he did not know his true name.  But he felt powerless to go up and talk to Valjean; he could never bring himself to talk to him when he saw him with Cosette on the outside, and now it has been such a long time that he feels especially powerless to talk to him.

Enjolras went to check on Javert, the prisoner, down in the basement of the wineshop.  Javert requested to be laid down on a table like Mabeuf.  Four insurgents accommodated this request, while securing Javert’s bonds even more tightly.  Javert recognized Valjean, but even this had little effect on him:

While they were binding Javert, a man, on the threshold of the door, gazed at him with singular attention.  The shadow this man produced made Javert turn his head.  He raised his eyes and recognized Jean Valjean.  He did not even give a start; he haughtily dropped his eyelids and merely said, “Of course.”

 

Meet Charles Featherstone

Today I would like you to meet a new friend of mine.

Okay.  I know it sounds strange, and perhaps somewhat creepy, to say this about someone whom I have never met and I only know because I happened to read one thing he wrote online.  But still.  His story is a poignant and powerful one, and one which I can relate to on many levels.

His name is Charles Featherstone.  He has written a book entitled The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death, which tells the story of his journey to faith in Christ.  He wrote a piece for Christianity Today entitled “Saved from Islam on September 11“, which gives a very brief thumbnail sketch of his faith journey.  He blogs at The Featherblog.

Featherstone’s journey to faith in Christ started in the Lutheran church.  Both his parents were raised Lutheran, but his mother never had much use for religion and his father lost his faith in the goodness of God while fighting in the jungles of Vietnam.  As a result he had very little in the way of religious upbringing.  After experiencing violence from his father and bullying from teachers and fellow students, his journey took a detour through Islam, where the emphasis upon a God who cares how human beings treat each other and the sense of belonging that he experienced in the Islamic community were a refuge for him.  He was drawn to the radical elements of Islam, which gave him a theological framework to deal with the anger he felt in his soul as a result of the violence/bullying he experienced in his childhood.  At one point he considered going to fight in the Bosnian conflict of the mid/late 90’s with a group that turned out to be affiliated with al-Qaeda.  But he was married at the time, and he viewed that as a higher calling than going to fight that war.  He pursued a career in journalism, and as a result had a front-row seat to the cataclysmic events of September 11.  This was a defining experience for him, one which propelled him out of Islam and into Christianity.

He joined a Lutheran church, because that is where his wife was raised.  He felt the call to seek ordination and minister to the homeless, but twice he went through the candidacy process only to be told he was unfit for ministry.  At this point he is out of work, unable to find work as a journalist because that world is dominated by younger, hungrier people with fresher clips, and unable to find church work because most churches prefer the comfortable and familiar and have no interest in someone like him.  But as he says, “I don’t know if I’ll ever work again, but I know who I am and whose I am and what I bear witness to. And that’s no small thing.”

Read this Q&A piece at internetmonk.com, in which he goes deeper into several aspects of his faith journey, such as his childhood, his time in Islam, his experience of 9/11, and his unsuccessful (to this point) attempts to pursue a career in ministry.

What stands out to me is his intense desire for belonging.  On a certain level I can relate to this.  Though I never experienced anything like the violence and bullying he experienced in his childhood, I know what it is like to be on the outside, to know deep in my bones that I cannot quite seem to belong, to want what everyone else wants the way it should be wanted.  I have had seasons of life where I have struggled to find a home professionally, and I know what it is like to know that people just don’t quite know what to do with me because I don’t want what everyone else wants the way it should be wanted.  I am part of a church community that has been very good to me over the years and given me a great deal of latitude to be who I am, but even at that I am sure that there have been many times when they just didn’t know what to do with me.

For our talk about individualism, and even freedom, America is a deeply conformist society. Freedom is basically the ability to want and to choose the right things, to voluntarily conform. I suppose it has to be that way, or else nothing would hold the society together, but it also means that conformity is very internally driven. It also means there is quite a clash between what we as a people confess and how we actually live, and demand those around us live. And we really don’t know what to do with non-conformists. We really do not know how to accept those who, in their bones, cannot seem to belong, to want what everyone should want the way it should be wanted. I really wanted to belong, to be accepted, to be part of something in high school, and I kind of was — marching band, maybe — but mostly I was alone. I had friends, and some intense friendships, but not really the deep web of belonging I think I have been aching for much of my life. To be part of a people, enmeshed in them, and to have them be a part of me.

He explains how Islam satisfied his need and desire for belonging, how the Islamic communities he was a part of came alongside him, recognized he was an outsider, and very deliberately and purposefully taught him everything he would need to know to fit in:

But the Muslims I met understood something — that I was an outsider, I had not been raised in their faith or in any of their cultures, and so I would need to be taught. And generally speaking, they taught me. Not just the mechanics — how to pray, how to wash before prayer, how to read and recite in Arabic, what to memorize, which school of Islamic jurisprudence to follow and why — but manners and cultural cues, the little things no one thinks anyone needs to learn. A group of Saudi graduate students at Ohio State, where I finished up my bachelor’s degree, took me in hand, and had I been able to keep with it, they would have pretty thoroughly Saudi-ized me. I’ve been told repeatedly I speak Saudi accented Arabic. They understood what I didn’t know, and proceeded to teach me. Very deliberately and very purposefully.

He reflects on how the American church is inextricably tied to American culture and does not know what to do with outsiders:

The American church still expects the culture to do almost all of the heavy lifting, still thinks the skills that make someone a good citizen ought to make them a good christian too….The American church wants the comfortable and familiar, thinking it can reach the lost and lonely that way. And maybe it can reach some, I don’t know. All I know is that it didn’t really reach me, at least not on purpose, and that I don’t belong. Not anywhere.

Read the Q&A piece at internetmonk.com.  Let it soak into you.  Let it break your heart that someone with a strong calling to ministry, especially to the last, least, lost, and little who are so near and dear to the heart of Jesus Christ, cannot find a place to minister anywhere in the church as of this point.  Let it break your heart that he has had to struggle so long and so hard to experience belonging in a world where he just does not want the same things that others want, the way they should be wanted.  Let it break your heart that the American church is so enamored of the safe, the comfortable, the familiar, the tried-and-true, and that so many people for whom Christ died are not being reached by it.  If this does not break your heart, then please, get alone with God, get on your face before God, until it does.

All-Skate: Sexual Lines A Pastor Should Never Cross

Today I would like to hear from you.  I especially want to hear from those of you who are outside of evangelicalism on this topic.

Joe McKeever, a recently retired Baptist pastor in the New Orleans area, posted an article at ChurchLeaders.com entitled “7 Sexual Lines No Pastor Should Ever Cross“.  The article is a couple of years old, but the concerns raised are still quite fresh due to the recent spate of high-profile pastors resigning because of sexual sin.  Included in his list are things like “Do not use cologne”, “Do not compliment a young woman on her appearance”, and “When complimented inappropriately, laugh it off and change the subject”.

Go ahead and read the article.  Then answer this:  Do you think this is wise advice, or do you think this is too extreme?  I especially want to hear from those of you outside of evangelicalism, because I already know what most evangelicals are likely to think of a piece like this.  I want to know what you think as outsiders looking on at us.  Do you think this pastor has hit the nail on the head?  Or do you think this betrays an unhealthy preoccupation with sexual sin that is part of the problem and not the solution?  Do you think a piece like this betrays an inability to conceive of appropriate relational boundaries?  Or do you think the boundaries this pastor suggests are wise for anyone wishing to avoid sexual sin?

Okay.  Discuss.

Donald Trump and the Politics of Anger

trumpToday we’re going to talk about Donald Trump.

(Why?  Well, everybody else is talking about him right now, so hey, why not?)

Donald Trump is an idiot.

He has failed not one, but two businesses.  He says–and does–the most spectacularly inane things anytime the cameras are on him.

Yet he is insanely wealthy.  Whatever money he lost in the failure of his businesses is mere pocket change to him.  He has more than enough money to shield him from the real-world consequences that you or I would face if we said or did any of the things he has said or done.

Just try getting anything of substance out of him.  Imagine if he were called upon to broker a peace deal in the Middle East or craft substantive healthcare policy.  How well do you think that is going to go?  What’s he going to do, get all those Arab heads of state into a room and yell “YOU’RE FIRED!!!!!!!!!”?

Yet people love him for it.

Conservative evangelicals are eating this shit up.

Which completely and totally boggles the mind.  Trump favors a single-payer health care system–that’s essentially Medicare for all, something which is anathema to many conservatives.  He is not too keen on limited government.  He says the Bible is his favorite book, yet he also says he has never needed to ask God for forgiveness.  He has given money to both Democrats and Republicans alike–essentially buying influence from political officials.  He took a medical deferment from the draft, yet feels no qualms about mocking the service of POWs because they were captured.  He has been married multiple times.  He has zero political experience.  He is only recently pro-life, and there is good reason to doubt the sincerity of that commitment.

None of which fits with the expected profile of a Republican favorite.

Yet Trump has lapped the field multiple times and banished all other Republican hopefuls to the realm of complete and utter irrelevance.

Why?

One word:  Anger.

It seethes out of the mouths of political talk show hosts, over the radio airwaves, and into the waiting ears of millions of conservatives and evangelicals.  It preys upon the worst anxieties of conservatives and evangelicals concerning Obama, China, Russia, illegal immigrants, you name it.  And it has found its culmination in the person of Donald Trump.

And now, here we are.

So how did we get here?

Simple.  Political talk radio has been around for decades.  It is growing in influence–especially among conservative evangelicals.  The hosts are rude, brash, angry, bombastic, derisive, irreverent, unforgiving individuals.  They frequently attack and belittle other groups and other points of view.  They have stoked the flames of anger, fear, and hatred for decades.  Why?  Because in the alternate universe of political talk radio, that is what sells.  Now someone who models the exact same personality qualities which they routinely demonstrate in their broadcasts has come onto the political scene, and people are all over it like white on rice.  Because they have been primed for it.

So now we come to the real point of today’s post.  (I was lying about the Donald Trump thing.  I was just baiting you and stringing you along all this time.  Also I wanted the pageviews.)

The point is this:  What sort of people have we become as evangelicals?  What sort of people are we becoming?

The answer, I hate to say, is that we have been formed in the image of political talk radio, which is antithetical to the image of Christ.   As Christians we are called to let our gentleness be evident to all, yet gentleness is the last thing which is evident to all in the vast majority of political talk radio.  We are called to love our enemies and pray for our leaders.  Don’t see a whole lot of that happening in the world of political talk radio.  We are called to be kind to the unjust and the wicked, like our Father in heaven.  Not a lot of kindness on political talk radio.  We are called to put aside anger and wrath, yet anger and wrath exist in abundance in the alternate universe of political talk radio.

Whatever you listen to, that is what you become like.  Evangelicals listen to political talk radio in abundance.  Many have long commutes to work and turn to it to fill the time in the car.  Many justify it by saying they just want to be informed as to what’s going on in the world.  But as those days turn into years and years into decades, the influence of political talk radio begins to shape you; you become like what you listen to.

And that is how we got to where we are today.

So I urge you:  Think about what you are listening to and what it is transforming you into, slowly but surely.  Think about the qualities the political talk show hosts display during their broadcasts.  Are those qualities things you want to be known for?  Are those qualities things you are called to display as a Christian?

Think about it through the grid of “What does love require of me?”.  If you think you can make a compelling case that what love requires of you is the characteristics routinely seen in the political talk show hosts, that what love requires of you is to vote for someone like Donald Trump, then hey, go do it.  But somehow, I have a very hard time believing that that is what love requires of us.

Michael Spencer: To Know We’re Not Alone

Today I wish to direct your attention to a Michael Spencer post from several years back.

Lately I have been hitting hard on the question of what kind of people we as evangelicals are becoming.  I have approached this through the gay marriage issue and the issues of women’s equality that converge in complementarianism and purity culture.  Just this past week I have approached it through the church’s treatment of sexual offenders, which is problematic because in many places they are coddled while their victims are shamed, but in other places there are calls for their exclusion.  This is a difficult question because churches have a high volume of families with children and it seems unwise to allow sexual offenders access to such an environment, yet participation in the Church is a vital and necessary discipline of the Christian life so it is not right to exclude a certain class of Christians from church life because of the nature of their sin.  I think this piece is timely because it speaks to all of these themes.  Here is a sampling:

Over and over, Jesus reached into the lives of people like that preacher. The last, lost, least, losers. The unacceptable, the unreformable. The failures and the frauds. Those whose lives could not be tidied up with a little cultural religion. And from that, we have constructed a Jesus who prefers the “good Christian.” A Jesus who wants moralizing and religious superficiality. A Jesus who hardly needs to die for us, because a little exhortation to do better and keep on the straight and narrow are more our style. A Jesus without a cross, but with smiles and blessings for our homes and marriages full of “Christian moral values.”

So what kind of people are we becoming as evangelicals?  Are we becoming people who prefer to continue going through the motions of believing that everything is OK?  Are we truly leading others to a Jesus who went out of His way to reach the last, lost, least, and losers of the world, or are we inviting them to join in an exercise of denial and self-deception?  Are our churches and communities places where moralizing and religious superficiality are the order of the day, where Jesus doesn’t need to die for us because all we need is a little exhortation to do better and try harder, to stay on the straight and narrow, to apply good principles for a happier life?  Or are they places where all are welcome and it is truly safe to show our humanness and brokenness?

Read: To Know We’re Not Alone