“Strategy” in the Culture Wars (Part 3 of 3)


The Culture War Puzzle (Piece 6): The Battle Belongs to the Lord

Uniting modern persons is no religion or creed or political vision, but rather the world of film and literature. These get to us beneath our discursive reasoning. Whatever creed or critic you follow, you probably like Johnny Cash, The Wire, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Or if none of this, at least Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar. Modernity has perhaps given us no greater gifts than the gifts of the novel, film, and the folk song. There is no doubt that the majority of these products are useless (or harmful) to the human soul, but (as Heidegger would have it), “where the danger is lies the saving power also.” George Steiner is correct that art does not inherently humanize. But it nevertheless almost infallibly communicates. And this is the key to persuasion. 

Recall, the history of civilization is a history of judgment and redemption. Much of civilization is based on demonic whisperings. But rather than simply destroy, the devil erects no edifice that cannot be employed by Christ in ways that frustrate the designs of our old nemesis. Perhaps the devil attacks the home, but perhaps Christ is using this to save it from itself. Perhaps the devil has made sure that we are distracted from ourselves by endless pornography and trivial distraction. And yet the internet is perhaps the greatest evangelistic and church-growth resource in history. 

And it is precisely because the battle is the Lord’s that we need to have a reverential caution about the instincts of other Christians, a degree of deference toward what the Spirit might work in others. That is to say, should we not expect that different Christian communities in different situations have different relative emphases and strategies? Is it plausible that the vast majority of those who submit to Scripture are utterly out of step with the Spirit on these issues? We get the strategy which says that we should be invested in institutions and capture centers of cultural capital. We also get the strategy which says that these are moving toward implosion (there is some truth to this) and that we should rather cultivate refugee centers for when such institutions collapse. And we understand both because they are probably correct in limited ways. God, unlike we poor souls, happens to know the future, and perhaps He has placed His people (Remember! Some inside of NICE!) in different locations for precisely this reason.

What might resting in divine coordination look like? First, we are more liable to be “for” something (taking culture, fighting abortion, classical education) without assuming it is always the chief priority for all and in all circumstances. The vast majority of our energy can go into achieving that thing (with minority roles for fighting whatever prevents the thing). Resting in divine coordination might also encourage caution when our projects encounter tension with the projects of our neighbors. Negotiation in such a case does not mean that we compromise truth, but rather that we wish to live in peace with those whom we recognize to have real sovereignty, a sovereignty that is ultimately God’s. In short, the collective is part theirs. And implicit ultimately in team-spirit is some refusal to accept this. 

We should pause if we find ourselves treating our brothers as though they are but inhuman drones moving along in cultural winds that we understand and they do not. We should be very careful what we say of people who love God, because the Spirit dwells in them, too. Are we so sure that certain priorities aren’t better captured by the Baptists, the Charismatics, the Jesus people, the Reformed, or the Episcopalians? Moreover, are we so impressive?

There are many front-line battles. The war for the cosmos is not merely between the home and its enemies (though that is part of it), but also in every office, every business, and every encounter with a retail clerk. This may seem a sentimental line, but these are the sites where much of the church dwells, and where they ought to be encouraged in spiritual battle. The offering of critique cannot have authority outside the self-offering of encouragement and good-will. And such self-forgetfulness changes us in spiritually urgent ways. We are, after all, in a precarious spiritual position to the extent that we imagine that God has nothing to say to us in every human face—or if we reduce a real person to their projected ideology or self-label. God has already told us what each face more truly is—a king. And we must ever reverence, hear, and serve kings. 

Putting the Puzzle Together: Speaking with Authority

None of the above is meant to help us be “more balanced.” Rather, it is to help us be more precise. Speaking with authority requires precision. And precision requires, above all things, the adoration of the truth—most especially the truth about ourselves. To love the truth is not to “possess” it but rather to “be possessed” by it, just as a true reverence of Scripture is about “being read” by (situated before) it rather than instrumentalizing it. And you can (at least apparently) believe every word of the Bible while instrumentalizing it. Loving the truth is also measured by the extent of our desire to know when we are wrong, to be willing to be shown our error, and to expect God’s cultivation and discipline through others. Finally, to love truth is not merely to love its extracted propositions, but to love precisely how these intersect with real situations. The love of truth is radically inconsistent, then, with the desire to “possess” it for the sake of feeling a part of some inner ring, some grand project against which we reflexively identify the cowards or the ignorant (who turn out to be the negative photocopy of our fragile self-image). As one wise man put it, “Are you still discovering the truth about you? I’m still discovering the truth about me.” 

What does true prophetic precision look like? I cannot pretend to be a perfect guide here, but two things stand out. If I could abstract from all that the Bible says, and also describe the characteristics of men and women who seem unusually wise, I’d suspect that precision is located at the intersection of a perpetual mercy that extends far wider than our typical instincts, and a peculiar kind of good-willed and unyielding capacity to disciple the sinful soul (most especially, in our case, our own souls!). God is more merciful than we can imagine, and more jealous than we can imagine—both because He is good. It is difficult for us to hold these together psychologically, and it is a simple measure of our lack of conformity to Christ that we tend to move between them dialectically. 

Jordan Peterson is correct in his frequent insistence that the world needs to grasp the healing power of responsibility. It would also be correct to say that the world needs a far greater depth of mercy and forbearance. The combination of these is rare. Lewis captures it beautifully in Aslan’s complicated relationship to Edmund. Upon initial restoration, Lewis writes that the others Narnians and humans “saw Aslan and Edmund walking together in the dewy grass, apart from the rest of the court. There is no need to tell you (and no one ever heard) what Aslan was saying, but it was a conversation which Edmund never forgot.” Crucially, Lewis pushes the busybody in each reader away from the inner-space of Edmund’s intimate encounter with Aslan. But he notes the public result. “You have a traitor there, Aslan,” the witch soon thereafter says. The narration continues, however,  “Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he’d been through and after the talk he’d had that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan. It didn’t seem to matter what the Witch said.” The depth of God’s good-will is more than we’d ever hope to fathom. And this good-will means that He mercifully moves toward us in order to solicit our absolute exposure before Him, in order to discover the gentle healing of His perfect and perfectly trustworthy unsafety. 

One could profitably study the rhetoric of Christ with an eye to this. Take the case of the woman at the well. Jesus craftily evokes and satisfies a dear woman’s spiritual thirst. The truest authority comes with immense power and command, wielded by one who bears maximal burdens, but who also has maximal mercy and is compassionate to the weakest person. Christ bore the weight of the world on His shoulders, but also saw the widow’s two mites.

Speaking with authority in this world, then, involves speaking with both power and mercy. Concerning mercy, the very plain truth is that people are often trying when they don’t look like it to others. The details that make up an actual life do not fit easily into a few ticked boxes. And some weak persons are often fighting with far greater faithfulness than the most apparently faithful (for whom such faithfulness is often the fruit of circumstance, natural aptitude, temperament, healthy formative forces, self-confidence, etc). Again, the reason to emphasize this is not to escape the pastoral gaze, but simply because this is the truth, and we should live in the truth. 

At the same time, it is also the truth that people are sincerely capable of more than they think. Or perhaps better-stated, people can be drawn into being capable of more than they imagine. The most attractive souls, the best-willed leaders, summon what is ordinarily numb and sleeping inside of us. In the lovely words of a Richard Thompson folk tune, “You pulled me like the moon pulls on the tide. You know just where I keep my better side.” Responsibility, in this light, is not some mountain-climb that promises our eventual “catching-up” to the posse of the godly. Rather, it is the exhale of the healed soul, summoned out of its self-consumptive incurve, and projected into the task of self-giving. God’s discipline is an infinitely merciful discipline, and his mercy will never leave us alone, because that would be to refuse healing us. This is the chief spiritual insight in the Reformed view of good works as conditions for salvation. They do not “merit” salvation, but just are the experience of a particular aspect of salvation—the exhale of God’s vivifying spiritual in-breath.

This kind of authority is historically peculiar. We witness one of its intrusions in the apostolic fathers. Note Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians, “I am not commanding you, as though I were someone important. For even though I am in chains for the sake of the Name, I have not yet been perfected in Jesus Christ. For now I am only beginning to be a disciple, and I speak to you as my fellow students. For I need to be trained by you in faith, instruction, endurance and patience.” (3:1) Attempts to parody apostolic rhetoric often reveal the hubris of the speaker rather than their possession of the apostolic mantle. We are not Paul, and our situation is not Paul’s, and our rhetorical world is not Paul’s (which is rarely discussed!). Being biblical is not about superficially “sounding like the Bible” (or whichever part of it we cherry-pick), but rather about being shaped by the Bible—as a whole—and allowing all that the Bible is to shape our reading and approach to particular persons and situations.

It is true that there are wolves to be dealt with, and that they often require “the heavies,” as some folks put it. But we are almost certainly trapped in ideology at the moment we imagine wolves to be predictable and sheep to be obvious. And many men are terrible judges of when they are dealing with a wolf, or when they are dealing with someone who needs the word of God explained more accurately (as in the case of Apollos). To speak with authority, then, is not merely to speak with bravado or to be especially bold and quick to say hard words. Courage is not about finding hard words easy to speak, but about speaking them confidently (before God) in the right circumstances, even when it is difficult and heart-breaking. Are today’s supposedly courageous critics men of mourning and grief? 

The point, of course, is not to diminish the urgency of courage, but rather to insist that courage requires calibration if it aims to actually hit wolves rather than whatever and whoever might happen to be in their proximity. Here are some helpful diagnostics: Is it possible to win one’s opponent in speech seasoned with grace (that’s in the Bible, after all)? Is it possible that one’s opponent will respond well to a soft answer (that’s in there, too)? And then there is the test of Matthew 21: 32: “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterwards so as to believe him.” Are those whom you have dismissed responsive to the ministry of other faithful Christians? If so, does this cause you to examine yourself? In short, are we dealing with a confused person who can be won, or a proper wolf who is inflexible and (to that extent) demonic? Moreover, does our speech even contain the goal or possibility of persuasion? If not, we are very possibly being vain rather than being blood-earnest and good-willed. This is to parrot the motions of authority, but to lack its content.

Incidentally, many conversations outside the church are interested in the project of cooperative dominion. Richard Sennett is key here. And consider the rhetorical approach of Jordan Peterson in this video. It would not surprise me if it caused more people to reconsider their position on abortion than the vast majority of “similar” material written by Christians. Why? It is not because he lands where most of us would, but rather because he pauses before he answers, he feels the weight of multiple registers of concern. Moreover, he comes off as extremely good-willed toward those who have such concerns. And yet Peterson also does not come off as someone who allows us to be comfortable with compromised morality on the question. One might similarly recall Fred Rogers famous encounter with Congress. What is remarkable about it is that Rogers did not approach his interlocutor as an enemy, but as a friend with whom he must build trust. Moreover, he does not speak to the senator as though his concerns are illegitimate, or as though he has an easy decision to make. But most crucial is that he assumes that some piece of the senator actually cares about the very same thing he does. One might say that Rogers projects goodness of the man, and precisely in doing so, finds it and summons it out. And in the space of six minutes, we witness real-world persuasion (almost a conversion).

The truest authority exists only where persons are truly seen (rather than reduced to a few behavioral or ideological shibboleths), and where meddling with them is manifestly rooted in the good-will of one who lays down his own life in real world common projects. American History X is morally insightful here. Therein, peace is achieved through common labor (the protagonist repents only when he has to work with his enemy). Only then do we have the vantage point to speak with authority. One of our contemporary challenges on this score is that, in the internet age, we tend to reify persons into abstract “identity groups” that are less than human, and whom we therefore engage in a less than human way. Perhaps, our self-image to the contrary, we are still after the image of Moloch more than we’d want to admit. 

Conclusion: On “Re-Enchantment” and Common Projects

One chief anxiety of conservatives is some lamentation about the loss of an enchanted world. But this is to get things backward. The world is the same as it always was—world without end. It is rather we who are disenchanted. Presumably we know this, but framing the issue rhetorically in terms of the disenchantment of the world has perhaps subtly shaped our diagnosis and prescription in some misguided ways. It helps to recollect that the most significant shift has been in ourselves, and precisely to the extent that we have ceased to do meaningful work. Kurt Vonnegut saw this clearly in Player Piano (1952), which depicts the spiritual agitation of men with their material needs met by technology, but without meaningful labor. Whatever we want to call disenchantment is at least as much about stolen dominion (foreclosed meaningful work) as it is about ideas. Our priority, then, is not to sacramentalize the cosmos (and tear down those who don’t allow us to do so), but rather to stand in God’s everlasting mercy, to respond to His good-willed refusal to leave us alone, and take up meaningful tasks in the world where they can be found (being zealous for good works). And it is precisely via our self-giving—of gifts that God has given us to give—that our soul is lifted out of the smallness of its claustrophobic self-obsession to see the astounding panorama of His created splendour and  many threaded drama. And it is especially in working with and for others (most immediately and importantly, our own families) that we attach to the world and become apart of its meaningful motions. As Rogers might put it: “It’s so important to find out what we feel good about doing.”