Where Men Fear to Tread

Only a meathead of a man would dare to speak prescriptively to women’s issues these days.

Anyways, here are some interesting links exploring the intersection of modern technology, womanhood, and feminism.

These issues present themselves in different ways in the church compared to the culture at large. While the church appeals to Scripture as authoritative, the culture does not. And so I see the need for intellectually rigorous discussion in the public square on these issues, and I am grateful when I find it. Today I leave you with three examples.

First, a piece by Mary Harrington, whose writing I’ve enjoyed in a few places recently. I don’t know if she is a Christian or not, but she is a thoughtful voice. Over at First Things, she has a book review called Gender After Eden, based on a book by Abigail Favale. In it she deals with some profound questions:

The Genesis of Gender’ addresses what I regard as the central cultural (which is to say theological) struggle of the early twenty-first century: the proper relation between technology and the human person, particularly as it applies to women.

She also interacts with the work of Judith Butler. Here is an extended quote that I think is first-rate:

But for Butler, this is obviously the path of liberation, for the fight against the oppressive structures of power that shape our sense of self is a feminist one, and it requires us to dismantle every structure that might induce us to view our reality as men and women as influenced by our bodies —structures Butler calls “heteronormativity.” Ground Zero for that liberation is unmooring reproduction from sex and our bodies. Following her logic to its end, Butler advocates “replacing the maternal body” with technology, with the aim of “fully decoupling human reproduction from heterosexual relationships.” We are finally free when our bodies have no relevance to our most intimate relationships and deepest commitments.

Favale invites us to consider whether this disaggregation of selfhood, reproduction, and embodiment—already underway technologically—really adds up to a better world. From the perspective of her reading of Genesis, it doesn’t heal but rather deepens the postlapsarian fractures in our “spiritual-­somatic unity,” offering a vision of selfhood split from embodiment and a relation to ourselves and one another founded in objectification and control. Rather than affording escape from domination, it reproduces the very splits that make domination and control our fundamental mode of being in the world.

1. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2022/05/gender-after-eden

Onto our second link, which deals with similar themes from a different angle. Andrew Klavan, whose memoir of conversion to Christianity, The Great Good Thing, I enjoyed back in 2017, was recently on with Jonathan Van Maren’s podcast to talk about his most recent book, The Truth and Beauty. It purports to show that a close reading of the English romantics—specifically Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Mary Shelley—can shed light onto the meaning of the words of Christ in the gospels. If nothing else, a fascinating hypothesis.

In the course of the discussion, Klavan lays out some interesting ideas about how Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—perhaps the very first work of science fiction—is centered around the question of motherhood in a technological age. Shelley’s own biography hints at this, as well as certain elements of the text itself. He goes on to posit that this is in some ways the central question facing our culture. I’m paraphrasing from memory here, so you’ll have to listen for yourself to get the details. It’s the kind of claim that seems implausible at first; it’s too fundamental. Yet the more I think about it, the more I think he may be on to something. And of course he is by no means the first or the only person to suggest these connections. I just started reading his new book The Truth and Beauty and will hope to post a reflection on that when I’m done.

2. https://www.lifesitenews.com/episodes/conservative-author-explains-how-englands-greatest-poets-shed-light-on-the-meaning-of-jesus-words/

Thirdly, here is some further engagement with the writing of Abigail Favale, over at The Public Discourse. The value I find here is the substantive engagement with feminist literature (which, admittedly, I do not know well at all) from a religious and/or conservative perspective. Rejecting feminism out of hand as an unbiblical ideology is easy to find among conservative Christians. But those approaches are aimed at other Christians, not the culture at large. They do not really take the questions raised by feminism seriously. When it comes to talking with friends or family members who aren’t conservative or Christian, it’s helpful to be able to have more nuanced conversations that do not rely on appeals to Scripture.

3. https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2021/07/76816/

Reentering the Matrix?

I’m sitting down today to put down some thoughts on my month-long absence from social media. Actually I thought today was the last day of April but—lo and behold!—’tis the first day of May. As I write this then the thought occurs to me: I could go check my Facebook right now! What juicy notifications await! But I will finish writing this first.

The simple conclusion here at month’s end is that the role of technology and social media in my life has been healthier this last month than at any time I can remember. That isn’t to say there isn’t still room for improvement—there is—but it’s been a very significant step in the right direction. As a family we have spent more time together, and I have been more present when present. I’ve also had time to read and write more than usual, although I didn’t have any great outburst of creative productivity. I guess a part of me was hoping I’d wake up two weeks into April and have a brilliant novel or short story just pouring out of me. Alas!

Twitter I did not miss at all. Even with the Elon-buying-Twitter drama playing out in real time, I don’t really feel I missed anything by my absence. The constant screeching of real (and manufactured) outrage, the preening self-righteousness, the craven virtue-signaling, the over-active users who somehow tweet a hundred times a day (but how?!), and the creeping notion that Twitter somehow is or even represents real life—good riddance to it all. The best part of Twitter for me is interacting with people I have some existing connection to and being able to share bits and pieces of my writing. But that was perhaps 10% of my time on there. The rest of it was just a yielding to the power of the algorithm.

The Algorithm knows what we like.

Facebook is a bit more complex. Of course the same addictive neuro-hijinks are at play. The reason people become enslaved to gambling machines is the same reason many of us check Facebook dozens of times a day: the delicious possibility that something amazing might be there the next time. So we need to break that stranglehold with honesty, wisdom, and self-control. The positive side that I do miss is interacting with friends and the genuine exchange of ideas that, despite everything else, does occasionally happen. l do enjoy “thinking out loud” and hearing from people who have something to say. I’m a weird guy who thinks about things most people in my life do not and so Facebook puts me in touch with other folks who are likewise interested.

But is that reason enough to step back onto Facebook?

I’m not sure.

What is clear is that it needs to stay off my phone. The role of the “phone”—a ridiculous misnomer at this point—is a key piece of this whole techno-puzzle. It would be more truthful to name them rightly, for the word “phone” does not even begin to represent honestly the role they have come to play in our lives. And “smartphone” is no better. So what shall we call them? Our glowing rectangles, our pocket super-computers, our handheld digital universe gateways, our AI-powered attention absorbers, our voluntary surveillance devices (too conspiratorial?). A bit of a mouthful, but closer to the truth. I increasingly hear the word devices used. That’s not bad—it trades a sleight-of-hand, as if phoning is what we used our phones for, for ambiguity; a device might be used for anything, as is in fact the case with these.

All this highlights the need for more and better thinking about technology. I’m thankful to be finding that many fine thinkers and writers are answering the call. I’ve written before about many of these, but let me just list them all in one place. Older writers worth revisiting: C.S. Lewis, Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul; contemporary writers who are Christians: Paul Kingsnorth, Andy Crouch, Chris Martin, Samuel D. James, Tony Reinke; and those who are not: Jonathan Haidt, Erik Hoel, Tristan Harris, and many more. Please feel free to comment with a name or two I missed.

My hope is that the collective effect of all these will be to shift the thinking of a critical mass within the church and the culture on these questions. And to correct many parents’ unthinking embrace of every new techno-gizmo for their kids. Indeed there seems to be a shift taking place, as indicated by the springing up of grassroots movements like 1000 Hours Outside (“The entire purpose of 1000 Hours Outside is to attempt to match nature time with screen time“).

As for me, I will not be stepping back into the social-media Matrix like before. I don’t want to. The challenge will be, given my personality and various weaknesses, to dip a toe back in without being pulled in entirely.

“Swim at your own risk.” Spillway from the Monticello Dam in California.

The Tech Post

Is it just me, or are we all talking about technology far more than ever? It might be just me. I’m reminded of a strange phenomenon I have experienced a few times. It comes time to replace a vehicle, and I start doing a whole bunch of research, eventually zeroing in on one make and model. Suddenly I am noticing them everywhere: parking lots, streets, and even zipping by in the opposite direction on the highway. They were always there, but I never noticed them. Attention is a mysterious thing.

And so it was that during my month-long absence from social media that all kinds of hubbub and hoopla burst forth. Let’s seethere was Jonathan Haidt’s viral article in The Atlantic. If you’re like me and you already used up your free monthly articles from The Atlantic, you can check out the related podcast interview between Haidt and Bari Weiss. Samuel D. James, who is writing a book on how technology shapes us and how Christians ought to respond, offered a response to Haidt’s article: What Jonathan Haidt is Missing. It’s a good word.

Last week I was at the last T4G in Louisville, KY, without Twitter, and so I spent a lot of time walking around and looking at things. I’ll admit I felt a little bit like this:

“Hey, what’s going on over there?”

With impeccable timing, Chris Martin wrote a piece titled “Things Are Real Even if We Don’t Share Them.” Ironically, I am sharing that piece with you now, dear reader. But not on social media. Unless you post this post on social media, in which case we will have achieved maximum self-referential absurdity and the fabric of the universe will unravel.

I plan to write some more on my time at T4G, so stay tuned for that. Lastly, I have been pondering the whole idea of natural and creaturely limits as well as technology’s endless quest to transcend and transgress those limits. There is perhaps no greater illustration of this dynamic tension than the project of transhumanism. It was with great interest then that I read this piece by Wesley Smith at First Things: The Impossibility of Christian Transhumanism.

That’s enough links for today.

A Christian View on Psychedelics

Just a quick little post to say that my article got published on Rav Arora’s Substack, Noble Truths: Click here to read it. And I hope you will. I consider it a notable act of hospitality on his part to invite me to publicly disagree with him on this important topic and to offer my perspective.

In the process of writing and editing the piece, Rav and I have had two phone conversations as well. He asks a lot of really good and challenging questions, and forces me to think more carefully about my own positions. I appreciate that. The plan is to record a podcast where we revisit these themes and questions together.

I really didn’t plan to think and write so much about psychedelics, and I’m an unlikely candidate for the job, but here we are.

As I mentioned in a recent update post, I’m at T4G this week. We just finished the first day. It’s quite a production, let me tell you. But it’s been tremendous: encouraging, edifying, enjoyable. And the highlights are the random breakfast conversations in the hotel and reconnecting with people I haven’t seen in 10 years as much as the main sessions – which have been excellent. And I haven’t mentioned the singing or the books. Well, I can see why it’s been popular.

There’s been lots of discussion in the panels about the meaning of the current ‘moment’ in reformed evangelicalism, the conference’s role in that, and what comes next. I’ll surely have more thoughts, but for now I’m enjoying taking it all in.

Of Thirst and Living Waters

The following is the text of a short reflection I shared at my church’s Good Friday service.

‘After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”’ (John 19:28).

Is there any more universal human experience than to feel thirsty? Jesus, the all-glorious second person of our triune God, humbled himself and took on flesh. God became man. And as a man, he experienced a truly and fully human life.

As a newborn baby he thirsted for his mother’s milk just as every other human baby has since the days of Adam and Eve. And here we see that at the very last moment of his earthly life, this all-too-human experience of thirst drove him to ask for a drink, fulfilling the Scriptures that had foretold and foreshadowed his coming. How striking that thirst was the first and last experience that our Savior had during his human life upon this earth.

But all through Scripture we see that thirst is also spiritual. And each of us knows this, do we not?

David’s soul panted for God as the deer pants for flowing streams. In the prophets we are told: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” And what are those waters? Jesus said that “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.” and “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Like the Samaritan woman, I find myself saying “Give me this water.” Do you?

Before coming to Christ I found in myself a deep and profound soul-thirst, although I may not have called it that. But I had been trying to quench that thirst with fleeting pleasures and religious good works, with the poison of pornography and the hypocrisies of church attendance and Bible knowledge. The Bible calls these ‘broken cisterns,’ vessels filled with putrid water that can never satisfy our thirst. I sought in them what can only be found in God, who is that fountain of living waters.

Earlier in his ministry, Jesus said ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” I find myself saying again: “Give me this water.” Do you?

This comes from the Spirit’s work deep in our hearts. So we pray: Lord, do this in me, do this in us.

We cannot quench our own thirst. We must go to Him who hung on that cross, and suffered so horribly for our iniquities and sins, our rebellion and our hypocrisy, and our misguided attempts to quench our soul thirst with anything and everything aside from the living God. And as we come to Him, our crucified Savior, and drink in his grace and mercy for us, we find our souls are truly satisfied.

Jesus endured the cross, and the thirst, so we would not have to. And through His thirst, we are given a fountain of living water.

Thanks be to God.

Some Updates

This blog has been quiet of late, even if my life has not been. I have had some exciting writing opportunities come up and that has kept me quite busy. Being off social media has been very good for me. The initial jitters and shakes of withdrawal have calmed down, and I recently spent my entire lunch break at work sitting quietly, eating my food, and staring out the window—like some kind of psycho.

I recently had a piece of cultural commentary published on The Gospel Coalition Canada, which you can find here. It is called Joe Rogan and the Search for Transcendence.

This led to an invitation to write a piece on psychedelics from a Christian perspective for the Substack of Rav Arora, a young up-and-coming writer from western Canada that I referenced briefly in my piece. That should be published later today, so I will link to it once it does.

I also have the opportunity to go to Together for the Gospel next week thanks to the generosity of some friends and especially my wife. So down into the very beating heart of Big Eva I will go, and certainly I will have thoughts to share about that.

And most of all, Happy Easter to you.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!

Stepping Off the Tilt-A-Whirl of Social Media

I got it into my head that it would be good to take a month off social media. This decision, of which more later, came about after a few months of reading a lot about technology, media, the internet, and the massive changes causing so much upheaval in the West. There are tectonic shifts occurring under our feet in real time. Francis Fukuyama famously wrote in 1989 that we had reached The End of History, that liberalism had prevailed, and that we had entered a golden age wherein democracy would continue to spread across the world. Such a feeling was perhaps understandable, but it is no longer credible. With war in Europe once more, and liberal democracies everywhere struggling with debt, decadence, and internal decay, such illusions are dissipating. Even Fukuyama himself agrees. History has started up again.

With all this instability in the world, I felt compelled to try and understand the nature and implications of these changes. I plunged into Paul Kingsnorth’s essays about The Machine, which is shorthand for the cumulative effect of technology’s endless march onwards. I, like millions of others, watched The Social Dilemma which exposed how Social Media giants exercise massive control over their users. I learned about the movements towards decentralization, such as cryptocurrencies and homesteading, and the powerful movements from above towards ever-greater centralization, such as the dangers of Central Bank Digital Currencies. I read about how AI increasingly functions like mysterious capricious spirits; how people have been broken and undone by an addiction to technology. I read thoughtful Christians reflecting on the spiritual impact of technology in our lives.

I’ve been getting clarity on the fact that my relationship to technology is not that healthy, even in the process of learning so much about how technology so often shapes us more than we think. The words of Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman are coming back to me. The medium is the message. Each technology has an inherent logic that works itself out despite the intention of the user. As one writer pointed out in an essay titled Technology and the Soul:

Every major smartphone app, especially social media, is the interface for an artificial intelligence “algorithm” which constantly processes everything it “learns” about you, updating a virtual representation of you, testing hypotheses about it against your real behavior, and continuing to update the model. The goal is not merely to predict your patterns of behavior, but, by presenting you with customized digital stimuli, to actually shape what you do. What is commodified is not information from and about you, but your very attention and behavior.

The closest analogy is to the insidious, absurd, but dangerous manipulation of demons as described by C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. Like Screwtape and Wormwood, digital technology companies observe and gather and analyze information about you, and it is not the “data” itself they seek to harvest, but your very mind and your will. Jaron Lanier, a former artificial intelligence innovator who has become a sharp critic and an evangelist for more responsible technology, clarifies that the “product” of social media is not information or attention but “the gradual, slight imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception.”

That’s helpful and sobering. So all this nudged me towards trying to do something concrete to reset and reboot the role of technology and social media in my life. But a big part of me, the addiction-prone part, didn’t want to change anything. So I posted my intention to take a month off of social media on… social media. This meant I was on the record – no backing out now.

But why exactly am I doing this? It’s important to be specific about the goals for such an undertaking. In order to answer this question, it’s worth reflecting on what negative effects technology and social media are currently having in my life. First, Facebook and Twitter can easily act as huge time-wasters. Too often I have found myself passively scrolling the endless string of content from the algorithm that was designed by expert psychologists and neuroscientists. They have chosen to use their hard-earned PhD’s to hijack the dopamine loops of countless millions, including me. Second, if I post anything to these platforms, I tend to compulsively check for engagement with that content every few hours for the next couple days. Third, daily news content & opinion comes my way via email, news websites, podcasts, and YouTube videos. My intake of these varies from day to day, but at times is excessive and unhealthy.

In addition to these effects upon me, there is also a definite negative impact on my family relationships. I am not nearly as mentally present with my wife and children if I have my phone in my hand. But even with the phone elsewhere, if I’ve filled my mind with these things to the point of saturation, I’m still not as engaged relationally as I want to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve been a complete zombie, but the difference is measurable and therefore lamentable. My wife and my family deserve the very best I have to offer, and I have too often given them far less – and for what?

So these are some of the things I am hoping to change during this coming month. I have removed Facebook and Twitter from my phone entirely, and will block access to them on my browsers. I will not watch news or current events opinions on YouTube, but take that kind of content in only through published articles. I will aim to not have any passive time on my phone, and to have nothing available on it to which I instinctively turn in those many small moments of tedium or delay throughout the day.

But what will replace all of this? You cannot create a vacuum without something filling its place. Well, more silence would be good. Silence encourages a prayerful heart, reflection, thoughtfulness. Good spiritual food is another thing I want to emphasize. Bible reading or audio is good, as is the daily prayer service of the Church of England. I would like to find a sermon series or seminary lecture series that I can dig into as well. I’m open to suggestions. It’s also a great chance to be outside more, with the weather warming up here in rural Quebec.

We moved out to the countryside a year and a half ago. A few things have been more difficult, but by and large I have loved it. The natural beauty is awesome and endless: stunning sunrises and sunsets, flocks of geese noisily settling down for the night in nearby fields, a distant train quietly moving across a winter field with a long trail of snow floating behind it, the power of the wind whipping across the landscape, and on and on. Living out here, you can’t help but recognize that, despite our modern conceits, we still need to bow to the natural forces that can so easily overwhelm and humble us. The city erases the wild; the suburb domesticates it; the countryside just barely keeps it at bay. Unplugging from ubiquitous technology allows for a deeper connection to natural beauty which, for me at least, speaks to my soul of the undomesticated Creator.

I will also aim to write more. Silence really helps me to write more, as the stillness allows my heart and mind to come up with ideas. Although I’ve been writing on and off for about 20 years, creative writing has been very intermittent. For example, after a season of reading a lot of poetry, I found myself writing some. I say it that way because it sort of bubbled up; I didn’t sit down and decide to write poetry. Recently, I noticed that I stopped writing poetry immediately upon returning to work after a season of parental leave.

I’ve long wanted to try my hand at fiction, whether through a short story or a short novel, but nothing has come yet. I recently discovered a chapter’s worth of fiction that I wrote about ten years ago, and I was very pleasantly surprised. I didn’t really remember writing it, so it felt like reading someone else’s writing – and I enjoyed it. If I could find the right idea, and then have the mental space to develop it, who knows? I might just write something worthwhile.

And of course I want to write about this specific experience of resetting my relationship to technology and social media. I’m not sure what that will look like, but it will probably include some shorter pieces on this blog, and then something like a personal reflective essay with some broader application. I am not, after all, the only one who struggles to keep technology in its place. If anything, I belong to the last generation that will have had a memory of life without technology and the internet as an ever-present reality. I suspect that in the coming years our society, and young people especially, will be desperate to reconnect with nature and the transcendent as technology leaves them empty, frazzled, and addicted.

He Descended to the Dead

As we approach Easter week, the Christian’s thoughts turn to those epic events of Christ’s passion week: his triumphal entry, his betrayal, his unjust trial, his crucifixion, his burial, and his resurrection. Now what is missing from that list? Did I forget any major events? At least one evangelical theologian says yes, and he argues that most of us skip over the events of what has historically been referred to as Holy Saturday: that full day where Jesus laid in the tomb between his death and resurrection.

And what were those events? Just what exactly happened on Saturday? The Apostles’ Creed summarizes the Easter weekend with these unforgettable words:

     He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried;
      he descended to hell.
      The third day he rose again from the dead.

All Christians have heard or repeated those words: “He descended to the dead” or, “He descended into hell.” But what the Sheol does that really mean? Sounds like some spooky hocus pocus stuff, right? Well, not quite. Enter Matthew Y. Emerson’s helpful book:

Dr. Emerson has written this book in order to metaphorically hold the hands of confused evangelicals and introduce them to this classic doctrine of the ‘descent.’ No, not the classic PC video game by the same name – though many a happy hour did I there spend.

Not this. But if you were into video games in the 90’s, you probably remember this.

Back to our topic. So what is the argument of the book, in a nutshell? From page 103:
“… the confession that Christ ‘descended to the dead’ can be summarized like this:

Christ, in remaining dead for three days, experienced death as all humans do: his body remained in the grave, and his soul remained in the place of the righteous dead. He did not suffer there, but, remaining the incarnate Son, proclaimed the victory procured by his penal substitutionary death to all those in the place of the dead – fallen angels, the unrighteous dead, and the OT saints. Christ’s descent is thus primarily the beginning of his exaltation, not a continuation of his humiliation.”

Elsewhere, he expands on this a bit and claims that:
“Christ ‘releases’ the OT saints, by which we mean simply that, rather than dwelling in Abraham’s bosom (or paradise) awaiting the Messiah, they now dwell in the presence of the risen Christ.”

One of the interesting aspects of this doctrine is the metaphysical discomfort it brings. It’s one thing to believe in a far-away heavenly realm. But it smacks of an embarrassing medieval credulity to say that Jesus descended through the earth to the realm of the dead, wherever that is. This embarrassment is in part due to the stranglehold that modernity has had on even faithful evangelical theology for the last hundred years or more. Such is the incredible power of the dominant materialistic assumptions that underpin our age. This is what I meant by metaphysical discomfort. This doctrine means agreeing more with the ancient Greeks and Israelites about the existence of Hades or Sheol than with the respectable materialist metaphysics of modernity.

But this so-called respectability is really a house of cards, a mirage, like the ethos of ‘cool’ that hung around certain people in high school. It’s not worth fighting for because it is built on a foundation of weaponized doubt and unbelief.

By and large I found this book compelling, fascinating, and edifying. This was especially true for the first three or four chapters, which form the heart of his biblical and historical work. I wish I could delve into these details more substantially, but I’ll leave you with this link where you can hear a 25-minute interview where the heart of the book’s teaching is really laid out.

In later chapters I sometimes found it a bit tedious, and I confess I even skipped a few footnotes. The author takes to time to interact with many academic journal articles and historical arguments related to this and it had a tendency to get a bit overly technical for a non-scholar such as myself. The book is clearly aimed at pastors and Bible college or seminary students. But the author won me back by always keeping an eye on the practical implications both personal and corporate of the truths he was dealing with.

The author states his hope at the very start of the book: “My goal… is simple: to recover the doctrine of the descent for evangelicals today.” I think he is successful in that regard. In most cases, evangelicals have no real argument against the doctrine except for the intuitive metaphysical discomfort that it brings. It’s not like there is some other firmly held belief that Jesus spent Holy Saturday playing Uno with Abraham. There is simply nothing there at all. We don’t have a theology of the descent; and we don’t know what to do with it. We usually just avoid it.

The book therefore serves to cure our ignorance historically, Biblically, and theologically. There are riches and truths to gain and grow from here that we ought not miss out on any longer. And as for that temptation to feel even a little bit embarrassed about believing such a thing? Let it go. I was embarrassed of my parents in High School, but it was I who was wrong. I had breathed that nauseous atmosphere too deeply and it had distorted my view of reality. Likewise, we’ve been living with a truncated and distorted materialistic worldview for far too long already.

The Reasons for Unbelief

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt by Alec Ryrie (audiobook)

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” (You’ll see variations on this memorable quote by Blaise Pascal because it was originally written in French: “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.”)

This book is in some ways an in-depth historical exploration of that statement and the truth it contains. The author, historian Alec Ryrie, states explicitly that he seeks to counter the prevalent narrative that atheism and secular humanism arose from changes in philosophical reasoning and intellectual beliefs. Rather, he argues that two powerful emotional currents – anger and fear – animated unbelief for centuries before it ever emerged as a coherent set of beliefs. In order to make his point, Ryrie garners evidence from across multiple centuries and the whole of Europe (with a special emphasis on England).

The historical work seems sound to this layman. Ryrie has unearthed dozens of fascinating first-hand accounts. Whatever issues one might take with how Ryrie summarizes the meaning of all the material, I think it’s undeniable that he’s onto something really worthwhile here. There really does seem to be a powerful emotional current at work in so much unbelief both in the past and today.

I found myself wishing he would apply these insights more thoroughly to our own day. But this was not his stated goal so I cannot fault him for anything except failing to write precisely the book I would have preferred. He does however make some interesting comments in the concluding chapter which are worth repeating and reflecting on.

Ryrie argues that, since WW2, Adolf Hitler now functions as the universally agreed fixed moral point. It is now unthinkable to praise Hitler just like it used to be unthinkable to criticize Jesus in centuries past. This manifests itself in another interesting way also. In the 17th Century, the argument-ending slander was to call someone an “atheist,” and Ryrie made clear in previous chapters just how endlessly that insult was hurled from one group to another. Today the argument-ending tactic is to call someone a “Nazi.” Lastly, in terms of imagery, the most potent moral symbol in past centuries was the cross. Today it is the swastika.

I might wish it was different, but this argument strikes me as correct. Modernity and subjective moral reasoning have chipped away at all the shared moral points of reference and really there are not very many left, of which Hitler and Nazism seems to be the one that has the most purchase across the breadth of our society.

These reflections are especially timely for us Canadians as the Freedom Trucker Convoy in the first couple months of 2022 led to some significant political and cultural turmoil, including endless talk about swastikas and accusations of Nazi-sympathy. It is interesting to step back and see that, in a time of massive moral transformation (one might even say revolution), this is indeed the one fixed moral point. Whatever else we believe is right or wrong, everyone agrees that THAT is wrong. And all ends of the political spectrum seem unable to resist the temptation to weaponize that moral certainty to score political points in our troubled age.

Why Hollywood Can’t Pull Off Goodness (According to C.S. Lewis)

I’m no movie critic – not even close. I don’t seem to have whatever artistic antennae are required to appreciate the subtleties of the cinematic medium. Nevertheless, like most people, I do have eyes in my head and do enjoy a good movie. And it happens to be a fact that every movie works from a script – a story with characters and dialogue. So the basis for every movie is the written word, while it cannot be said that every book is based on a movie. (Woe to the book that is based on a movie: Thou art a fraud.) My point is that the same dynamics of moral imagination are at play in a movie as in a novel or any other creative work of fiction. And this is where the following quote by C.S. Lewis collided in my mind with a simple observation I’ve made about many of the movies and TV shows made in recent decades, which I’ll get to in a moment.

It remains, of course, true that Satan is the best drawn of Milton’s characters. The reason is not hard to find. Of the major characters whom Milton attempted he is incomparably the easiest to draw. Set a hundred poets to tell the same story and in ninety of the resulting poems Satan will be the best character. In all but a few writers the ‘good’ characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago [the scheming antagonist from Shakespeare’s play Othello], the Becky Sharp [the morally vile protagonist from Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair], within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder. It is in their ‘good’ characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations. … To project ourselves into a wicked character, we have only to stop doing something, and something that we are already tired of doing; to project ourselves into a good one we have to do what we cannot and become what we are not.

C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, Chapter 13. Emphasis mine.

Now since I’ve already dipped into the mode of the woe-throwing Old Testament prophet, I’ll allow myself one more: Woe to the one who looks to Hollywood for moral clarity. And all the people said Amen. But even without looking to movies for moral clarity, it remains a fact that so much of what is compelling about a movie is the moral fabric of the main characters, both good and evil. I am limiting myself here to those movies which are a essentially a contest between moral opposites: crime dramas, thrillers, action movies, or the never-ending series of original or rebooted or off-shoot superhero movies. The simple observation I am making about such movies and shows is that the good characters are becoming more troubled and morally compromised. It is so very rare to see a compelling protagonist that is good. The anti-hero is the hero for our age; the anti-hero is the only kind of hero we can believe in.

The above quote by Lewis is commenting on the scholarly consensus that Milton’s Satan (in Paradise Lost) is more compelling as a character than any other in the story. Lewis then lays out a morally insightful explanation for why that is necessarily the case in fallen humanity’s literature. Another example of this principle is found in the fact that Dante’s Inferno is by far and away more popular and compelling to the typical reader than either Purgatorio or Paradisio.

I used to think that an author’s characters had no vital connection to them – that an imagination could dream up moral monsters and virtuous heroes without it being a reflection of itself. But this is not true. As Lewis says, “It is in their ‘good’ characters that novelists [and screenwriters] make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations.” Indeed, we are infected with moral cynicism. We look back on the virtuous heroes of past literature and we groan at the naivety of such caricatures. But this reaction reveals far more about our modern moral weakness than it does about anything else. And our modern writers cannot conceive of a truly virtuous person because our culture has jettisoned objective morality and the priority of character formation.

Adam and Eve and the obedient angels may not have been Milton’s best characters, but I dare say he was able to make them far more compelling than our typical cadre of authors and screenwriters could today. Even when they attempt to treat subjects of similar greatness, it seems they cannot avoid falling into caricatures either of rigid moralists and unhappily repressed religious people on the one hand, or vile hypocrites who are only pretending to be good on the other.

Small wonder then that the heroes we see onscreen, whatever technical mastery and skill they may have, are hardly ever compelling examples of deep moral goodness: Iron Man and the whole Marvel cast, John Wick, Deadpool, and so on. There are of course blessed exceptions to this rule, such as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s LotR Trilogy and Franz & Fani from Terrence Malick’s recent movie A Hidden Life. It takes real effort to pull off these characters well and avoid portraying a plastic pseudo-goodness that comes across more as naivety than virtue. One common element between them is suffering. Perhaps goodness untested by suffering and evil is never very compelling. But I am straying from my main point, which is that we do learn all too much about the storytellers of our time by the manifestations of goodness that they are able to imagine and conjure for us.

Simply put, we do not have deep and compelling moral goodness manifested in our entertainment because a writer’s imagination is constrained by his or her own moral character and by and large we have forgotten (or rejected) the possibility and priority of conforming ourselves to an objective standard of virtue.

I mean, have you ever seen Caillou? That kid’s a brat.

“Weak point, sir. I’m from Canada, not Hollywood.”