The world was so big, and I was so small

The world was so big, and I was so small March 5, 2023

A couple of other recent items could also, like the previous post, be filed under the category of Generation X Is Getting Old. Some of us, it seems, aren’t handling this well.

• Aaron Renn’s “Three Worlds of Evangelicalism” continues to be discussed and embraced as a framework by white evangelicals of a certain age. It is, weirdly, still being treated as history or sociology or theology instead of what it obviously actually is: a mid-life crisis memoir.

Gene Veith describes Renn’s article as “The Three Stages of the World’s Attitude to Christianity” and is completely unconcerned with the fact that these three supposed Major Historical Epochal Shifts in the World’s Attitude all just happen to have occurred within Renn’s adult lifetime and to correspond to the stages of it.

Here’s Veith’s summary of Renn’s Grand Historical Thesis:

  1. Positive World (Pre-1994): Society at large retains a mostly positive view of Christianity.
  2. Neutral World (1994–2014): Society takes a neutral stance toward Christianity. Christianity no longer has privileged status but is not disfavored.
  3. Negative World (2014–Present): Society has come to have a negative view of Christianity.

Those dates are from Renn’s original, Very Serious, article. 1994 and 2014. He describes his selection of those idiosyncratically specific alleged hinges of human history as “impressionistic,” but tells us he chose 1994 because of Newt Gingrich becoming Speaker of the House and Rudy Giuliani becoming mayor of New York City. He chose 2014 because it was “just before” Obergefell was decided at the Supreme Court.

But, again, those dates were “impressionistic,” so allow me to translate. Here’s my paraphrase of Renn’s thesis:

  1. My Childhood and College Years (age 0-25): My parents were proud of me when I went to church and Sunday school. My InterVarsity chapter in college was really supportive.
  2. My Early Career (age 26-46): Got a pretty good job. My co-workers know and respect that I’m a believing church-goer, but of course we don’t talk about that much at work.
  3. My Middle Age (age 47-present): I saw a video my daughter posted on Tik-Tok-book where she rolled her eyes and made fun of me for saying that Ted Cruz would make a good president. She also made a joke about my New Balances.

This isn’t sociology or religion studies or theology — it’s autobiography. It’s not about some amorphous sense of the attitude toward an even-less morphous “Christianity” held by a not-at-all morphous “society at large.” It is, rather, a nostalgic fondness for the innocence of childhood, followed by adulthood, followed by “These kids these days with their phones, amirite?” And then the projection of all of that back onto “society at large” and Christianity as a whole.

It is, in other words, the Principal Skinner meme as a substitute for H.R. Niebuhr’s Christ & Culture.

(See earlier: “We’re Beginning to Suspect That Not Everyone Sees Us as Their Moral Betters.”)

• Speaking of Gen-X mid-life crises … Stephen Marche writes a long 10-year-anniversary critique of Tom Scocca’s “On Smarm.” It’s thoughtful, but ultimately also, well … smarmy. Literally, in that Marche’s critique of Scocca’s essay winds up deploying the very same condemnations of snark that inspired the essay 10 years ago.

Marche isn’t Principal Skinner so much as Vice Principal Strickland, scolding Marty McFly Scocca for being nothing but a slacker who embodies “the thumbsucking adolescent atavism of our cursed generation.” This is an essay that identifies a “punk sensibility” to snark and somehow manages to do so in a way that harks back to the pejorative, Strickland-esque use of that word.

To appreciate the smarminess of Marche’s critique, consider the famous protest sign from Occupy Wall Street pictured here to the right.

That’s an iconic example of snark. It’s rude, profane, angry. It’s an independently produced piece of media (a hand-made sign) that barged uncredentialed and uninvited into the establishment discourse.

It is certainly true, as Marche says, that this sign does not propose a detailed agenda in response to the crisis it accurately describes. Or, in Marche’s more florid phrasing, “here we arrive at an absence, an absence at the crux of the essay. Scocca doesn’t articulate another value outside of the market or institutional validation.”

This has always been a core aspect of smarm: Forbidding critique by requiring that any critic first present their own detailed, foolproof, utopian solution.

The word “snark,” remember, first arose as a dismissive term for the critiques raised by anyone who opposed the planned U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. There was, we were told, “an absence at the crux” of our opposition, a failure to “articulate” another way to quickly and easily remove Saddam Hussein from power, locate and destroy his massive arsenal of WMDs, and rapidly transform Iraq into a secular, peaceful, stable, capitalist democracy and ally of the U.S.

That Occupy sign is also a call for anger. “Stuff is messed up” when it doesn’t have to be that way. The world is not as it should be or even as it could be. It’s worse than it should be, worse than it needs to be. That is, and ought to be, upsetting.

“Hope has two beautiful daughters,” the saying attributed to St. Augustine says. “Their names are Anger and Courage. Anger with the way things are, and courage to see that they don’t stay that way.” Or, as Scocca put it, “Anger is upsetting to smarm — real anger, not umbrage.”

Marche imagines that claim hasn’t aged well: “Ten years ago you could argue with a straight face that there wasn’t enough anger in American discourse, that what the United States and the internet needed were more anger.”

Because all anger is identical, doncha know. Distinctions about where anger is directed and by who and whether or not it is legitimate or appropriate can be waved away by the calming, smothering blanket of smarm that reassures us that what the United States and the internet need, always, is less anger.

Contrast that with what Ben Ferencz said back when he was just 97, “I’m still churning.”

Ultimately, Marche’s essay repeats the confusion at the heart of all of the original condemnations of “snark” that Scocca vivisected 10 years ago. He winds up arguing, essentially, that because snark is not sufficient, it is always also unnecessary. That does not follow.

“The world, as always, demands clarity and compassion,” Marche concludes, and I’d say amen except that he’s also already dismissed every avenue of response we might have to those powers and principalities intent on ensuring that clarity and compassion will remain rare commodities.

I find them hard, they’re hard to find. Oh, well, whatever …

(That’s from another 10 years previous, back when our “cursed generation” was still basking in the “Positive World” of our youth.)

• The title for this post comes from this achingly beautiful thing:

(And now you know where the theme song for Psych came from.)


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