There is a good reason why not many truck drivers and farmers are progressive utopians with dreams of revolutionizing society. A farmer who doesn’t learn to work with the grain of reality is going to have silos with no grain. A trucker who doesn’t learn that the wrong air pressure in his tires will lead to blowouts, or in other words, that he must conform to the rules of physics and not the other way around, is not going to be on the road very long before disaster strikes. In these professions, with their close proximity to grounded reality, error leads quickly to correction and discipline in the most obvious and painful of ways.
But in the softer sciences, conceits and abstract theories can float around and spread like a mind-virus long before their incarnated effects reveal how disastrously mistaken their assumptions were. The long delay is a key and critical difference. The correction and discipline do come, but just like sending a child to time-out 3 hours after they hit their sibling is sure to teach them nothing, so the delayed correction to the wrong-headed theories rarely seem to change the minds of those who adopted them. And by then the damage has been done.
So the farmer and the trucker get discipled into a kind of humility with regard to nature. Their relationship to the nature of the cosmos and of human behavior is such that they must adjust themselves, like a partner in a waltz, to the larger forces they reckon with and harness. The best farmers, or plumbers, or electricians, or woodworkers — all those hands-on trades — are those who best discern and adjust themselves to the raw material they handle, and the natural forces which act on that material. This willingness and ability to adjust to nature as we find it is a kind of humility which is absent from those who aim to remake the world.
Beyond the forces of nature, there are certain universal human elements that must be accounted for as well. For example, being punctual, truthful, and trustworthy will lead to repeat business and recommendations – in short, flourishing. So a brilliant plumber who cheats his customers will not get far, but a personable and honest electrician who burns a house down through shoddy work will do no better. One needs a measure of both practical and interpersonal skills.
If only the work of intellectuals had such tight feedback loops, we could save ourselves so much pain and misery. Unfortunately, the work of the intellectual allows him to entertain ideas which are manifest nonsense, but which sound good and appeal to a great many people for one reason or another. And the more wealthy and decadent a society becomes, where the educated classes are further and further insulated from the harsh realities of the created order — and its humbling lack of flexibility on many points — the more they have the illusion that everything is malleable and plastic. Yes, everything can be re-imagined! And then our perfect utopian vision can be brought to pass!
But God will not be mocked, and the particular shape he gave to the world we inhabit will only be thwarted for so long.
For this reason, I prefer my intellectuals and thought-leaders to also be farmers.
Poetry captures the essence of both moments and ages like nothing else can. As Ezra Pound said, poetry is “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”
There is power in the just-right words. They can help us see what we only dimly sensed before. And for the poet, or any writer, finding just the right word is deeply satisfying, like the composer finding just the right note and just the right chord, or the painter finding just the right hue.
Like many others I feel the West is in decline, and while I recognize its many flaws and failures, I have yet to see anything better save for dreams and utopias that never come about. So there is a touch of lament in my spirit these days.
As a Christian my hope is not and was never in any civilization or culture – my hope utterly transcends such chaff. But nevertheless I find myself a beneficiary and inheritor of a truly great tradition, the loss of which is no small tragedy, and the death of which will bring about no small amount of suffering and misery for those who come after – most of all my own children.
The lament I feel is tempered by a competing spirit of hope. You see, I am Protestant evangelical, which means I swim in the spiritual stream whose headwaters are revival. By revival I mean simply a sovereign (unmanipulated) outpouring of God’s Spirit which fundamentally transforms individuals to the point where they become unrecognizable, and where this is so widespread that communities are changed, cities and counties and even nations are changed.
In the dreary articles I read about the decline and impending fall of our civilization I rarely encounter this touch of hope – a hope which is not without significant historical precedent. I find this curious. Have these people never read Nehemiah 8? Or read about the first Great Awakening or the Welsh revival of 1904? Yes, we are in decline. Yes, the trajectory seems clear. But no, decline does not always lead to disaster.
I recently came across Kipling’s poem Recessional. I resonated with it. Written in 1897, it is situated in a certain time and place, but it speaks beyond those bounds. Here it is:
`God of our fathers, known of old, Lord of our far-flung battle-line, Beneath whose awful Hand we hold Dominion over palm and pine— Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget—lest we forget!
The tumult and the shouting dies; The Captains and the Kings depart: Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice, An humble and a contrite heart. Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Far-called, our navies melt away; On dune and headland sinks the fire: Lo, all our pomp of yesterday Is one with Nineveh and Tyre! Judge of the Nations, spare us yet, Lest we forget—lest we forget!
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe, Such boastings as the Gentiles use, Or lesser breeds without the Law— Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget—lest we forget!
For heathen heart that puts her trust In reeking tube and iron shard, All valiant dust that builds on dust, And guarding, calls not Thee to guard, For frantic boast and foolish word— Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!`
With Queen Elizabeth’s passing this week, the consensus seems to be that the 20th century is truly over, that we have turned over into a new age that is post-Christian and thus unrestrained by the moral vision and virtues that Christianity made normative.
And so, patterned after Kipling’s poem, and prompted by this historical moment, I dipped my pen and tried to capture something of the lament and the touch of hope. I am no Kipling, but here is my poem, titled Unless.
Monarchs pass, the ages turn What has gone will not return Unless, unless
Beams have faded into dusk We are left with only husk Unless, unless
The cancer is in every joint The doctor says there is no point Unless, unless
I don’t know much of anything about architecture except what seems beautiful to me and what doesn’t. Until a few years ago I wouldn’t have known how to express the nature of these preferences, and indeed whether they were rightly to be thought of as preferences or as something else.
Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder?
After all, people buy all kinds of houses, even the ones that seem ugly to me.
So who am I to say what they should like?
But maybe that’s not quite the right way to go about trying to think this through.
In recent months I’ve had some help with this, and I thought I’d try to put my thoughts down on paper as a layman for other people who are unversed in architectural history and theory. The first piece of help I received was from the late Sir Roger Scruton in his little book Beauty. Scruton helped me start to make the link between beauty in general and the kind of beauty we are drawn to in art, and in architecture specifically.
One gets a sense of his view from this quote:
Ordinary architecture, however adventurous in its use of materials, forms and details, cannot rely on the excuse of artistic licence in order to creep through the planning process. In art we attempt to give the most exalted expression to life and its meaning. In everyday arrangements we simply try to do what looks right. Both cases involve the pursuit of beauty.
But then there is a whole different approach to architecture that sees it as a platform for philosophical arguments. Thus the postmodernists make buildings that reject symmetry and harmony because they have moved on from a view of the world that sees any cohesive centre and order. That is why some buildings feel out of proportion and shocking to one’s sense of balance; that is precisely their intended effect.
There is an intentional attempt to create a sense of fragmentation that reflects postmodern deconstructivist philosophies and the modern sense that enlightened people can no longer believe in ‘grand narratives’ that can make sense of the world.
What helped to crystallize the contrast between these different approaches to architecture was an excellent essay in first things by Michael Lewis on the late architect Christopher Alexander, and especially his debate with postmodern architect Peter Eisenman. I recommend the piece to you, even if you have no real interest in architecture. That’s the point: architecture points beyond itself to a certain vision of the world.
What became so clear was how metaphysically rooted the different approaches are. That is to say, they develop organically from the most fundamentally views on reality, views which are philosophical and even religious. In other words, it’s all connected. The shape of our buildings will flow out of the answers we give to questions such as: What is the nature of the universe? Does it have order? Does it have a purpose? Is there some meaning which unites our existence with everything else? Is there some unifying point, a Source?
Answer that question one way, and your buildings look like this.
Answer those questions another way, and your buildings look like this.
If anything is becoming increasingly clear, it is the growing distance between those who understand the world to have a given shape, and those who do not. And while leaving room for the inconsistencies that we all have, which is to say that you shouldn’t assume you can know about someone’s worldview or metaphysical beliefs based on what kind of architecture they enjoy, still there is a vital connection here between those beliefs and the buildings a society celebrates.
Deep down, it really is all connected. The last word goes to the late Christopher Alexander:
When you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole.
What books can we give our teenagers that will help them grow in virtue? So much of the Teen Fiction genre today seems to find its raison d’être in being transgressive and celebrating vice. The result is often a reading experience that drives a wedge between the young person and their moral and spiritual heritage. But there are always a few bright spots, a few gems among the wreckage.
Enter Black Bottle Man, a novel that recently came to my attention. It is a fine example of an exciting story that, while not a explicitly Christian, is nicely compatible with a Christian view of the world. It is the debut novel of Craig Russell, a Canadian from Manitoba.
The story begins in the 1920’s, with an extended family living on three connected farms. Three couples, but only one child: young Rembrandt. The two childless women reach a point of dark desperation and resort to black magic to bring about the children they so desire.
The magic works, but there’s a very nasty catch, and only a hastily struck deal with the nefarious Black Bottle Man gives the troubled family a glimmer of hope. There are souls at stake and the men of the family, including Rembrandt, must find a champion who will be able to defeat the Black Bottle Man. From this strange beginning we follow the trio as they learn to survive out on the road and as Rembrandt matures into a young man.
The narrative spans the entire life of the protagonist, with chapters jumping back and forth across time so that we see snapshots of the characters’ lives at various stages as the story unfolds. These separate pieces gradually come together for the climatic end, which is framed as a battle between good and evil, the champion against the Black Bottle Man.
The world in which the story takes place is anchored by Christian reference points. The book contains its fair share of the supernatural, but rather than relegate it to the world of fantasy, it is presented in a straightforward manner. The moral compass is calibrated correctly – virtue is good, vice is bad – which is all too rare in teen fiction. And so Black Bottle Man is the kind of book that has something of value to offer the human spirit as it deals with the themes of family, tragedy, loneliness, romance, and grace.
The writing is consistently good. In one memorable scene, Rembrandt finds himself in a small town church where the preacher uses Scripture to cajole and manipulate rather than edify. “Right then and there Rembrandt knew that he’d study that Book like Pa had, until he knew all the funny little corners where the mean, small-minded people like to hide” (p36). That’s insightful.
Scattered throughout the book are clever and thoughtful descriptions. At one point, Rembrandt is eased into the back of a police car: “The back seat is vinyl, patched and repaired from a life spent accepting displaced anger. The car smells of human beings in all their wondrous variety, locked in a perpetual battle with cheap disinfectant” (p91). One chapter opens up like so: “All music contains within itself a kind of divine madness. Few will read a book or watch the same film more than once, but everyone returns to their favourite songs. Of all the arts, music is the king of repeated experience” (p120). These fine touches help lift the book from a prosaic adventure book to something in touch with the imaginative.
Not everything about the book is a complete success. At times the back-and-forth motion from past to present is jarring and hinders the momentum of the story. Also, some aspects of the book are a bit harder for me to believe or understand. But these hiccups do not detract significantly from the overall appeal of the book. Craig Russell has managed to craft a compelling story with a clear moral vision, bring it to life with vivid and memorable descriptions, and fire up the reader’s imagination; all within a world that is infused with spiritual realities. That’s quite an accomplishment.
If every Young Adult book had these ingredients in the mix, we would have much less reason to be concerned about what our teens are reading.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author for the purposes of writing a review.
Ever since I saw the montage of Fox News clips decrying a million wars on every conceivable facet of life, I’ve been a bit weary of the “this is a war on x!” framing. My favourite was the supposed war on cows, those docile beasts of burden which enrich our lives in countless ways. How tragic to hear there is a war on bovinity. This kind of framing smacks of catastrophizing; amplifying an issue beyond the merits of the case. So I was a bit wary of Douglas Murray’s new book when I saw it was titled The War on the West. Murray is a journalist and an interesting conservative thinker who, if nothing else, asks good questions. I appreciated his previous books, The Strange Death of Europe and The Madness of Crowds.
Having read the book – or listened to it, rather – I think the title is fitting, and unfortunate only because overuse of the “war on x” trope has devalued it. It is a worthwhile book that offers some clarifying moments for those making sense of the world in the 2020’s. Above all it reveals the stunning intellectual dishonesty and double standards of those radicals and revolutionaries who do desire above all to bring down the West.
The book shows how institution after institution, in almost every sphere of society imaginable, found itself utterly incapable of standing up to the self-inflicted neo-Marxist criticism of its members, or leaders, or both.
In fact, the most striking example in this long cavalcade was the church: denominations falling all over themselves in self-recriminations that are both unprovable and unfalsifiable. They are statements of faith. “We are systemically racist,” they cry. “We must do better.” But no evidence is offered, and no criteria established for measuring progress, except for the bankrupt idea of the equality of outcomes. In a real sense, it is a con, and one has to say that few have seen it for what it is.
And I can understand why – Christians are taught to consider the truth of a criticism even when it is offered in bad faith. Is there any truth to this? We are introspective, and rightly so. We say with the Psalmist, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24). But this humble posture can be weaponized and used not to cleanse our hearts further but to muddle our minds with nonsense. This is especially true of denominations that have loosened their grip on the changeless and authoritative truth of Scripture. Having made themselves soft and malleable at precisely the points where they should be firm in their convictions, they make themselves easy targets for woke nonsense, which is really a kind of cancerous mutation of the Biblical ethos of compassion divorced from the other virtues which balance and complete it.
What Murray really succeeds in showing is how dishonest the “war on the West” is. It is not a good faith argument, but a hypocritical double standard that is only applied to the West, and never to any other culture. No one spends time waxing eloquent about the systemic racism in Saudi Arabia, in China, or in Sub-Saharan Africa. The withering criticism is always leveled only against the West.
It is a merciless criticism, a relentless tearing down, a kind of blind rage. It is immune to facts, to wisdom, to context, and above all to the kind of humility that would temper criticism of the past with gratitude. The kind of humility that would say “but for the grace of God go I.” The kind of humility that acknowledges that if I had been alive then I would almost certainly have been on the wrong side of key questions.
The West of course does need criticism. It needs clear-eyed, objective criticism. And those who love the West must above all hear and heed that criticism. But criticism devoid of gratitude is a universal solvent, a super-acid. It leaves nothing to build with. One of the best parts of the book is Murray’s reflection on the goodness of gratitude.
I’m left also with questions about what the Christian’s role is to be in the preservation and building of civilization. A part of me says that the Kingdom is not of this earth, so leave all that aside and focus strictly on the church. And indeed the salvation of individuals is more fundamental than civilization. Lewis has a great quote about this in The Weight of Glory:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
And yet Lewis labored mightily in his life to foster not only the salvation of individuals but the restoration and rebuilding of culture. Alan Jacobs lays this out in his The Year of Our Lord 1943. There is a tension here that I don’t think needs to be completely resolved. And we do not all have the same vocations. I am deeply grateful both for those who labor exclusively in the church and also for those who labor for the flourishing of a healthy, humane, grace-besotted culture.
So as a critique of this amorphous meta-critiquing movement – wokeness, critical theories, neo-Marxism, whatever you want to call it – it is a valuable contribution which I’m thankful for. But as a Christian I am left feeling like it suffers from a lack of positive vision for culture-building. It laments the tearing down of something that was good, but it does not risk offering an ideal that could inspire a new generation to build again. For this we shall have to look elsewhere.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved writing. But I have always resisted the idea that writing might be a part of my identity and calling in life. I’m not sure why. Recently that has been changing.
I realize now that my childhood home was filled with books in a way that was unusual. My parents were often to be seen reading. My older brother Alex quickly became a devoted reader, blasting through stacks of novels. All of this rubbed off on me, and things which I took to be unremarkable I now see as a foreshadowing of things to come.
I remember having two truly excellent English teachers who both left a mark on me. The first was Mr. Wiggins, who taught me in both grade 5 and grade 6. He was an extremely tall man with large glasses. For some reason I don’t remember what his voice sounded like. He was funny. He would write long sentences across the blackboard and then when he got to the end of the space he would continue writing on the walls of the classroom. To a schoolchild, even a hint of playful rebellion in an authority figure like a teacher is delightful. He got ten and eleven-year-olds to learn words like extemporaneous and calamity and vociferous. I ate it all up, the lessons and the assignments.
Once, when we were told to bring something to read quietly in class, I brought one of our treasured Calvin & Hobbes books along with a dictionary for looking up words I didn’t know. Mr. Wiggins was impressed. I still think Calvin & Hobbes is pretty brilliant and a great way to expand one’s vocabulary:
The other excellent English teacher that left a mark on me was a Mr. Bellamy in high school. He also was a popular teacher. He taught us to write. I don’t remember how he did it, but the end result of it was that I very badly wanted to write the most excellent pieces of creative writing in order to impress him. I worked at it diligently over that year and submitted papers I was proud of. As someone who mostly breezed through school, that level of effort was a new experience. He read those papers carefully and handed them back with copious comments and sometimes a personal conversation too. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly how, but I know for a fact that I’m a better writer today for having had Mr. Bellamy as a teacher.
Some years later, and after my spiritual rebirth at the age of 19, I wrote a short reflection on writing. I recently found it tucked away in an old file in my computer backups. I had forgotten I had ever written it, so it felt like I was reading someone else’s words:
What is writing? It is notation. But there is writing and then there is writing. And the latter sparks revolutions, both quiet and cataclysmic. Writing is communication bordering on impartation. It is a medium so broad that the loftiest ideas imaginable have room aplenty to cross the great divide between these independent entities we call minds.
I wonder, I wonder; am I a writer? Oh I can notate just fine, but can I impart? Can I, with the finesse and restraint of an artist, craft and swirl, lift and push, yes and with finality make a collection of words that imparts the ineffable? Can I sow seeds of the good without the soil’s knowledge, at least until after the fact? Can I teach the eye to see, and yes even to love, the beautiful even as it lusts for the profane? Can I in some small way affect that impenetrable centre of being, the heart, with what I can only pray will be a taste, an appetite, yes a hunger, for that essence which is sourced entirely in the threefold Spirit of the I AM?
Can I be a writer? Probably not. But can I write? Well I hope so.
I think I wrote that in my early 20’s, about 15 years ago. What I like about that reflection above is that it expresses something I still feel deeply, namely that words have this mysterious but undeniable power to nudge us towards virtue or vice, towards God or away from Him.
Despite writing occasionally on this blog and receiving some affirmation here and there, it has only been in this last year that these lingering questions have been answered for me as doors have opened up for writing and editing in a more public way. One of those open doors has been over at TGC Canada, where I’ve been able to write a serious book review, a piece of cultural criticism, and a piece of spiritual reflection. In each case I’ve been blown away by the positive responses.
In addition, I’ve been given opportunities to do some editing by an extremely accomplished author and editor, Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin. Here is the first look at the fruit of that partnership:
Dr. Haykin is very generous with his time and advice, giving me a chance to work in the world of publishing like this. In addition to this volume on John Gill which will be published this year, we are working on two other projects.
This all has seemed too good to be true. It’s almost like I’m a writer!
Well, I guess I am. I’m just going to have to get used to the idea.
As I was waiting for the Rogan piece to be published, I was rather nervous. I had worked on it for months. I had really pushed myself to weave together a narrative that was compelling, intellectually stimulating, and edifying. And as such it felt like more of a risk, and like more of my self was wrapped up in it. When it finally came out, the response was a bit overwhelming for an almost-complete novice to the online writing world. Tim Challies linked to it, and then the main TGC USA site featured it in their Around the Web links for a day. Collin Hansen tweeted it out. I got asked to do a radio interview for a Christian station in Pittsburgh.
And all this happened on the week of the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death, in early March. I tried to write about that at the time, but nothing seemed to come together. It was a strange mix, the marking of a sad milestone along with success in the sphere where my mother had the most influence on me. She was a writer and an editor too. And although I don’t remember sitting down with her to get tips on writing and editing, I know I picked up a lot of things along the way.
I noticed how hard she would work at finding just the right word, as evidenced by the scribbled and scratched-out notes covering her text. I saw how she stressed out over the regular column she had to write for the magazine she edited, yet somehow always found something to submit by the deadline.
Looking back now I guess it makes sense I would end up so involved with words. But all along the way I see how people in my life—my parents, teachers, and others—earned themselves an unpayable debt of gratitude by investing in me and giving me opportunities. Ultimately my writing and editing, like every other aspect of a Christian’s life and calling, is a stewardship of what has been given by God, and faithfulness is the call.
I have tried to write well even when only one person would ever read my words. I have tried to think and write well even when the number of readers of this blog was less than ten. In a sense, the numbers truly don’t matter, and until they don’t matter, the writing itself is tainted. That is something else I learned from Bill Watterson: to do a thing for the love of it and no other reason. (I got this from his only public speech). It is analogous to Eric Liddell’s feeling that God was pleased when he ran, for He had made him to run. My own motives are always mixed, but this is the north star I try to orient them by.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 thispost 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.
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.