Flocking Apart

Flocking Apart February 22, 2022

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Lately, I see some variation on this tweet all the time: “I just don’t understand. Explain to me how it is that [list of criticized evangelical names] can be bad, while [list of secular pundits/public intellectuals] is good. When did Christians start turning to secular voices instead of listening to their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ?”

This is a low-resolution version of an idea I’ve seen developed in longer-form, more sophisticated contexts, but the gist of the argument is the same: Christian voices deserve closer attention, higher respect, and warmer feelings of commonality from their fellow Christians than secular voices do, simply because they are Christians. And if they don’t get that, something is wrong. Something decadent must be at work under the surface.

Perhaps more evangelicals are tuning in to Jordan Peterson than Tim Keller because Tim Keller says uncomfortable truths that they don’t want to hear about their idolatrous devotion to conservative politics. Perhaps younger Christian men prefer Ben Shapiro’s podcast over Gospel Coalition podcasts because they’re more serious about winning political debates on socials than they are about honing a winsome, “gospel-centered” Christian witness. Perhaps they dislike David French and Russell Moore because they’re Trump fanatics who are being prophetically exposed. Perhaps they watch Glenn Loury and John McWhorter on Talking Heads while ignoring Jemar Tisby or Thabiti Anyabwile because they’re secretly racist, and they’re just looking for a black guy who will tell them what they already want to hear. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

There are cruder and subtler ways of framing this kind of speculation. Sometimes they’ll find positive things to say about select secular voices, like Jordan Peterson. Or sometimes they’ll include a concession that David French has been obsessively writing the same column for five years—a very low bar at this point, but still, nice when people admit it. Still, the core thesis remains that as a matter of Christian principle, Christians ultimately need to feel more bonded to fellow Christians than to non-Christians. And explanations of why they don’t rarely engage with substance. Instead, one finds variations on the theme of bulverism—the word C. S. Lewis coined in a passage from God in the Dock. This is usually cited as a pull-quote, but I think it’s worth quoting the fuller context:

Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant – but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds. It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—“Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.

As always, Lewis is on point.

The truth of the matter is far more complicated, because the truth of the matter is that people are complicated. People have many sides. People have all manner of axes along which they form their alliances and allegiances. The bond of trust is a cord with numerous strands that can fray and break—not for decadent, pathological reasons, but for ordinary human reasons.

Let me take just one issue: COVID. A while back, somebody asked me what I thought was the most divisive issue of recent times, and without hesitation, I said COVID. Never in my lifetime have I seen anything drive so many wedges between so many groups of people. It’s been kind of amazing to watch, especially since I’ve always felt there was a certain arbitrariness in how the “hawkish” and “dove-ish” sides got politically tagged. In any case, a certain narrative was quickly established: Government mandates were for everyone’s best good, preventative measures like masking were signs of “neighbor love,” and vaccines were only unpopular among ignorant, belligerent political radicals. Christians who did not fall in lockstep with this narrative were smeared for being conspiracists, for hating their neighbors, for not being “pro-life,” for being “pro-death,” even.  Russell Moore, speaking to David Brooks about “how evangelicalism lost its mind” (no, really, that’s the title of the podcast), called evangelical churches “crazy” for opening their doors and defying mandates. Tim Keller, in a Facebook event with Francis Collins, called John MacArthur’s church the “bad and the ugly” of evangelical pandemic responses. Meanwhile, Canadian pastors like James Coates were literally getting arrested for trying to gather their congregations in organic, incarnated community. If Tim Keller and Russell Moore had a word to spare for them, I missed it.

Canada, of course, has made even bigger news recently. It’s not my intent here to wade into the complexities of protest techniques, or to give an unqualified blanket endorsement to all the tactics the truckers have employed. I think there are legitimate concerns about the ripple effects of blocking commerce, and I can respect other conservatives who hesitate to give full-throated endorsements out of consideration for this. However, what you absolutely cannot deny, unless you’re just inhabiting a parallel reality, is that the protests were born in a context of suffocating legal overreach, and that Trudeau’s response has been nothing short of tyrannical. This is terrifying stuff. We are talking about our closest “neighbors” in the West. And if we want to talk about “brothers and sisters in Christ,” we are talking about “brothers and sisters in Christ” who are caught in the thick of this fight and facing persecution. This is news that demands attention and intelligent commentary from all North American church leaders.

Meanwhile, on a region-by-region basis, conditions similar to those that lit the fuse in Canada have also obtained here in the states. But church after American church has provided the opposite of a “prophetic witness.” Tim Keller’s Redeemer in NYC segregated their congregations by vaccination status (which I don’t blame Keller personally for, to be clear, misguided as I think his pandemic thoughts have been). A large evangelical church in Charlotte, North Carolina required employees in its Child Development Center to get vaccinated or be fired. Other churches required proof of vaccination at the door. Before the pediatric vaccine arrived, one church even refused to let children under a certain age into the building. All this and more is documented in Meg Basham’s excellent coverage here—from the Daily Wire, an outlet frequently dismissed and decried in these meta-conversations. But that’s part of my point here. If Christian leaders and Christian legacy media were doing their job in these times, Meg Basham wouldn’t need to do it for them at the Daily Wire. But the Bulverism and tone-policing will continue until morale improves—or, more likely, until nobody reads Christian legacy media anymore.

Is it any wonder, then, that while so many prominent Christians are silent at best or bullying at worst, ordinary evangelicals find it refreshing when secular voices speak up on the danger of mandates, the collateral damage to children, or even the need for churches to remain open? Yes, I’ll say it: In this pandemic, I’ve seen atheists who seem to understand better than some Christians what church buildings are for. I’ve seen Tom Holland on a stage with N. T. Wright, trying to talk about what the church can uniquely offer, and instead of taking his cue to say something bold and prophetic, Wright says something vague about “staying safe.” When people talk solemnly about how “the world is watching” the way Christians talk about this, that or the other thing, I wonder if they really understand who’s really “watching,” and what “they” really think.

Meanwhile, N. T. Wright is off playing guitar duets with Francis Collins, nodding solemnly along as Collins mocks Christians who “think Jesus is my vaccine.” Is it any wonder that instead of listening to N. T. Wright, some of us are building connections with people outside the church like Bret Weinstein, who will actually listen to why we have concerns about the COVID vaccine and think through it with us in a logical fashion?

Let me add one last layer to this: It’s ironic to me that the same types of folks who complain about “connecting more with non-believers than believers” seem to go quiet when these same patterns manifest in a leftist key. The rapper Lecrae has collaborated with secular artists and political figures. Jemar Tisby has worked with Ibram Kendi. Younger up-and-coming writers like Dante Stewart celebrate when their work is noticed by figures like Ava DuVernay. And no doubt if you asked them why, they would lay out their own reasons and frustrations, about their own issues of concern. They would talk about how certain white evangelical leaders weren’t attuned enough to their concerns about racial injustice. They would talk about how difficult it is to bond and build trust with Christians who seem oblivious to glaring problems in the culture.

Now, no doubt I would disagree with all of that, on substance. Certainly, I have serious problems with the work of specific figures like Kendi. But in the abstract, I’m consistent, in that I don’t particularly care if these guys feel more warmly towards writers, activists, celebrities, etc. in secular spaces than they do towards leaders in Christian spaces. Because this is my point: This is just how people are. It’s intrinsic to the human condition that we are going to gravitate naturally to people who give voice to our particular concerns, with whom we feel a sense of mutual understanding and sympatico. Those people may be Christians. Or they may not be. It’s going to be a mix, whatever side of the aisle you’re coming from.  It is also intrinsic to the human condition of the content creator that we are all going to get a little thrill of excitement when someone we’re a fan of notices our content. Dante Stewart will fanboy over Ava DuVernay. I will fangirl over Tom Holland (no, not that Tom Holland). This is how it is.

Will this lead people to put an inordinate amount of trust in unwise voices? Of course. For Christians on the left, it might be Ibram Kendi. For Christians on the right, it might be James Lindsay. Is this unfortunate? Yes. But let’s be honest: There’s no shortage of unwise voices within the church to serve as objects of misplaced trust. And that’s the point. “The church,” loosely speaking, does not have the market cornered on wisdom. And the outside world does not have the market cornered on foolishness.

So, choose well. And choose wisely.

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