Looking Back, Looking Ahead
It didn’t take very long to jump back into the swing of things in 2019. For the last week or so, I tried to take a little bit of time to intentionally reflect on what I see going on in the world, especially the parts I see most often, and begin to sort through the major themes and trends. Where are we going as a culture? What can we do about it? Here are a few ideas.
Everyone Knows There's a Problem, No One Knows How to Fix It It's cliche at this point to decry the division and politicization in our world. The outrage mob on Twitter has become an ongoing joke, comedy has all but disappeared due to policed speech and 10-year-old social media posts, and as often as we hear appeals for civility, there are few examples to look to for guidance. I have to say, Rep. Dan Crenshaw's response to SNL was a highlight this year; it was one of those moments that made you feel like there was an adult in the room.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the solution is a return to individual virtue. From the earliest times, the state has been seen as an agent for producing virtuous people. For Aristotle, politics was the highest ideal because it was the study of how to cultivate individual and societal virtue. Over time, we’ve come to envision the role of the state very differently. One reason may be that we can’t agree on what constitutes a good person. Even talking about virtue may send shivers down your spine because you envision being shouted down for claiming that something is right and something else is wrong. The secular frame that runs around our culture is getting tighter and tighter. If we don’t know what’s right and we can’t say that anything is wrong, it’s no wonder we’re unsure about how to make any progress.
Biblical virtues are an obvious choice. There are two common errors in the church, the first is to believe that evangelism is the only role Christians play in society. The second is to believe that Christians can bring about social justice without conversions. This explains the debate over the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel last year. God sent his Son to make things right in the world, but the primary means he chose to do that was sending a Savior and calling all people to repent and be transformed. As a Christian, I believe that no person can truly grow in the fruits of the Spirit without the Holy Spirit - one of so many reasons why I wish that every person would submit their life to Christ - but that is a far cry from saying that Christians are the only people who can be virtuous citizens. Another feature of this dilemma worth mentioning is that whereas now the prominent narrative of Christian virtue has been deconstructed into support for patriarchy, bigotry, and xenophobia, even a quick glance at history would prove otherwise. For the last two millennia, Christian virtues like kindness, peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, humility, self-control, and the like have been stabilizing, preserving forces in society. Not only does the widespread possession of these virtues lead to societal advance, it also opens the door to discovery, civility, benevolence, and so many of the other features we crave.
Now, it is not possible to set out to create a more peaceful society as a whole; we must resolve to take personal ownership in the process. How will I bear the fruit of the Spirit more deeply in 2019? With enough of us seeking to imitate Christ, we can and will provide a solution. We Still Believe in Meritocracy, But Now Merit Comes Through Popularity We now live in an attention economy. Your worth as an individual, a company, or a brand is determined by the share of attention you can capture. Your success is directly due to your popularity. This is why we see the ever-increasing tendency of famous people to speak with authority on any issue they like. It’s not as though they don’t have anything good to say, but is there any guarantee that they do? It’s human nature to reduce what we here to a select few people. What’s new is that for more and more people, the strongest voices come from people they’ve never met. In the attention economy, someone with a million Twitter followers or a great video team has infinitely more authority over our views than our families, neighbors, and friends. The two disturbing corollaries of an attention economy are that everything cycles more quickly, and what's popular has no connection to what is true. Fake news may be one of the clarion calls of both political parties, but the news crisis doesn't originate in politics. Certainly, President Trump has capitalized on this phenomenon - and it would be hard to argue that he hasn't made it worse - but he didn't originate the fake news problem; we did. And it didn't come by some conniving group of political operatives, but through our own addiction to intrigue. Luke’s description in Acts 17 has gotten better with time, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” Are we sure he wasn’t talking about social media?
I’ve just begun skimming the research on this topic, but what’s been most alarming to me is the way the brain processes information when we’re looking at screens. Neil Postman argued years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death that we cannot be taught and entertained at the same time. When I read that book, I didn’t believe it. Can’t great teachers be entertaining? Here’s what I think he meant: You cannot be a dopamine junky and do the kind of synthesis required for reflective thinking at the same time or on the same device. What makes things worse is the most profitable companies in the world make their money off of our attention. It’s in their best interest to get us addicted to their product. Read some of the early studies coming out on Fortnight. Those guys making the game are brilliant, but what will be the long-term cost? As we’ve all seen in the slow train wreck that was Facebook in 2018, we’ve handed ourselves over to people who are not safe. To call Mark Zuckerberg evil is simplistic, but it’s true. As one of the faces of Big Tech, he has come to represent the worst of those who exploit human nature for profit. But it’s not his fault; it’s our fault. We just can’t quit.
Our phones are not making us smarter, more measured thinkers. In fact, even when social media is helping us acquire new information, it is simultaneously stirring us up and further entrenching us in our own views. The mob mentality we have on issues like politics fuels the attention culture, but it is also produced by the fact that we think a very small portion of the things we believe, we feel almost all of them. This is not the end of the world when you know what you’re doing.
The upshot of all of this is we still want to evaluate things by their merits. For better or worse, the merits we’re being trained to appreciate mostly have to do with popularity. Popular things are not always true. We really don’t know what we need, but we’re being conditioned to believe that we need everything we want. That’s a dangerous idea.
Christians Don’t Know What They Believe, But Progressives Would Be Happy to Tell Us
A few months ago, LifeWay and Ligonier released a survey called The State of Theology 2018, in which they summarized what Americans, and specifically Evangelicals, believe about God and other religious topics. The results were not encouraging. More evangelicals than not believe that people are born good and mess up every now and then, God accepts the worship of Christians, Jews, and Muslims equally, and that Jesus was the first being created by God. Not exactly a stellar showing. But there were some bright spots. Evangelical Christians are overwhelmingly trinitarian, and close to 90% believe that salvation comes through faith and not through works. That’s great!
Biblical illiteracy is one of the most dangerous issues in the church today. A couple decades of consumeristic driven church growth movements, a culture-wide aversion to biblical teaching, and the declining number of readers in the U.S. has led to a very small group of people who really know what the Bible teaches. Combine this with the fact that many conservative, Bible-believing pastors are hesitant to take a stand on any controversial topic for fear of public backlash, a decline in attendance, and losing the opportunity to reach the lost.
Enter the progressives. They do not have any fear of taking a stand on controversial issue; in fact, they do so with the full weight of the cultural media tide at their backs. It’s not surprising to me that there are actually a lot of articles, interviews, and blogs being published on mainstream media sites, because there are now more people who will advocate the kind of Christianity that sits really well with secularism. On this topic, I thought Michael Kruger’s blog on deconversion stories was one of the most important posts of the year. If you’ll talk about how mean and closed-minded conservative Christians are, isolate the definition of sin to things like racism and oppression, and require nothing of people other than to be nice to everyone except those who fall into the previously mentioned categories, then you can write for any outlet in the country, and you can build a huge platform. You can get a book on the NYT Best Seller list overnight. This is a palatable gospel, and those with secular worldviews crave to hear people who claim to be Christians espouse it. The interesting thing is, there’s some truth in all of those claims, but only part of the truth. All people have a longing for pieces of the gospel. The progressive church wants to look exactly like the culture in hopes that they might win the right to be heard. The problem is once they compromise their way into the good graces of the world, they no longer have anything meaningful to say.
What’s inescapable is that often what we need and what we need to hear and what we want to hear are different. Right now, we want to hear that we’re fine the way we are, that we’re accepted, and that we don’t need to change anything. We crave someone telling us that embracing what we feel and asserting our own subjectivity are the keys to our happiness and well-being. This message is so seductive because we do need to be affirmed and loved for who we are, even in our brokenness and helplessness. But we also need to hear that we’re not ok the way we are, that something has gone horribly wrong and the only way to fix it is to hear the call to repent, turn from who we have been, and follow Christ. If I were to attempt to put a fine point on all of this, I would say that self-denial is almost completely missing in American cultural Christianity.
Somehow, we need to find the Christ-like balance between cultural compromise and cultural arson. The battle for the phrase, “Love your neighbor” may be the key issue for the next generation of Christians. Is it possible to love your neighbor and still talk about sin? Is it possible to love your neighbor when you disagree about almost everything? Can you love your neighbor and serve them when you feel like they’re fighting for your rights to be taken away? These are really important questions.
Now, I want to say that there are so many positive things going on in the Christian world that are good and God-honoring, I would actually say this has been a really good year for Christianity in the U.S. The disparity between religious groups has been really good for clarity. The denominations and various sects are spreading out enough that it’s possible to see some real difference among those who claim to be Christians. Missionary work is up. Church growth among conservative evangelicals is up. Social media engagement with solid Christian content is up. We have a lot to be thankful for.
American Identity Is Still Strong, But It’s Going Through a Midlife Crisis
One of the meta-trends of 2018 is the changing identities of American political parties. Here’s how I would summarize it: we’re having conversations about things we never thought we would be talking about on a regular basis. That’s going to get worse. Some of the very foundational elements of the American ideal are being questioned - things like individual freedom and censorship, capitalism and socialism, representative democracy, borders, and our willingness to help those in need all over the world. The rise of socialism on the left and among millennials may be the story of the next generation. Gallup just published a poll showing 57% of Democrats view socialism positively, as opposed to only 47% who view capitalism positively. There are a lot of factors at work here, beginning with the fact that we live extremely privileged lives devoid of any serious suffering and free from almost all of the hazards people have had to deal with for 99% of human existence. But even more universally, this reveals a complete failure to grasp the essence of the American ideal.
For all the warning people have done about Trump destroying our public institutions, I’ve thought for some time that American institutions will be absolutely fine under Trump. We’re strong. What I don’t if we can endure are all the various Trump successors. Instead of recoiling from the things about him that are unappealing, we’ve facilitated the rise of his equals and opposites. We may get a centrist candidate in 2020 that restores Presidential decorum to the White House - Romney and Biden may both play that role - but the publicity flows to those on the far left. A few back and forths from the extremes may irreversibly weaken American institutions. No matter what side of the political spectrum you gravitate toward, a considered thoughtful response is better than reactive outrage. The deconstructive ethos of our culture makes it appear that tearing down and undermining our traditional values and institutions is the way out, but in the end, we may realize that we’re undermining the very things that made America exceptional in the first place.
The World Is Becoming a Better Place, and That Deserves to Be Noticed and Celebrated
As a final thought, I’d like to point out that in almost every meaningful metric, the quality of life around the world is going up. Thinkers like Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker have made concerted efforts in the last year to draw out attention to these measurements. The level of extreme poverty has plummeted, access to clean water is growing all the time, human rights violations are going down, access to technology is broadening, the efficacy of humanitarian aid is increasing, the gospel is spreading, and more people are coming to know the Lord. Of all the times in history, this is a very good time to be alive. We should all pause to be thankful for that.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.