It’s not wrong to tell people to not sext

Because apparently some people need to hear this:

When someone says famous women are at fault for taking nude photos, the subtext is clear: You are not your own. You are ours. And you should know we are always coming for you.

I’ve been seeing sentiments like this pop up in my Twitter feed quite a bit. Setting aside the near-parodic nature of this scaremongering line, this is honestly a worldview for which I have zero sympathy. It blows my mind that it would be considered offensive to criticize sexting. If a married couple chooses to send each other pictures, perhaps as a spicy way to fill in occasional geographic gaps in the relationship, OK. Fair warning, though: The iCloud you are uploading to doesn’t belong to you and isn’t under your control. Same goes for the cellular network that sends your image, or the SnapChat application you’re trusting. This isn’t “oppression” or “victim blaming,” it’s common sense. Read More

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A Thank You

This past year, and the last three months in particular, has been by far the most intense time of writing/blogging output in my life. I have blogged off and on for about 8 years, but never have I gotten so much energy and inspiration and readership as I have obtained this summer. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done, and actually opened very meaningful doors of opportunity for me in my writing journey and career.

Thank you.

Thank you for reading, whether once, twice, or regularly. Thank you for sharing a post on Facebook or Twitter. Thank you for commenting and interacting with me. Thank you for making this blog way more successful and rewarding than it deserves to be. Thank you for giving me a minute of your time, which is the most valuable thing a person can give to anyone or anything.

Thank you!

More Religious Than God?

I did not watch last night’s “Calvinism Debate” because, frankly, I had better things to do on a rainy Wednesday evening. Coming up through a Southern Baptist-yet-Reformed seminary for my undergraduate, I’ve heard and held more debates over Calvinism than I care to remember. To the degree that competing theologies disagree over interpretation, historical theology or basic hermeneutic controls, I don’t know how much more debating is really helpful. But that’s just me. Like I said, mostly I just didn’t care to watch.

I did, however, catch one tweet that made me stop in my tracks. Read More

Reading’s True Value

Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is a rich and successful man. According to many sources he is the highest paid athlete in the world. He is also the most successful prizefighter of this generation, currently undefeated in the ring, ranked #1 in the world, and holder of the WBC Welterweight title. If there is a level of success in pugilism that Mayweather has not yet attained, I’m not sure what that is.

It turns out that triumph in the ring doesn’t always translate to imperviousness on Twitter. Mayweather has been mocked on social media for several days now, ever since a radio station in New York released audio of his painful struggling to read a 10 second advertisement spot on the air (called a “drop” in radio lingo). Though most of us can sympathize with nervous stuttering in public, Mayweather’s lack of gab is hard to listen to; he stops, restarts, stops again after a few words (“I’m Floyd Mayweather” to be exact), ends phrases prematurely…in short, he sounds illiterate.

The jokes at Mayweather’s expense have come fast and furious. Rapper 50 Cent, after he posted memes and one-liners mocking Mayweather, challenged him via Instagram to read one page of a Harry Potter novel without a mistake, for which the rapper would donate $75,000 to a charity of Mayweather’s choice. Mayweather responded with his own Tweet:

A few have scored the beef 1-0 in favor of Mayweather.

I don’t want to pretend that Mayweather’s George VI moment is a significant turn in current events. Nor am I particularly eager to plumb the depths of his feuds with what seems like half the hip-hop industry. What I do find interesting though is that many people seem to really believe that Mayweather’s “flashing the cash” is the final word here. “Keep your reading, Floyd’s got mansions.” Mayweather’s multimillion payouts might be a good reason why 50 Cent shouldn’t make fun, but does it make struggling in a 5th grade reading level acceptable?

The logic underneath flashing the cash says that reading and basic intellectual pursuits have quantifiable value, which can be fairly compared to other quantifiable things, such as salaries, purses, or stock options. Your reading is, in this view, worth whatever it produces or enables you to attain. Literacy is thus placed on a flat table, next to a singing voice or tremendous athleticism, and measured in worth according to how well it can foment financial success for its owner. Literacy means a lot more to J.K. Rowling than it does to Floyd Mayweather, and physical strength and prowess mean more to Mayweather than to Rowling. What really matters in this line of thinking is using a habit, like reading, to gain financial success.

This worldview is everywhere. My local library has pictures of famous actors like Denzel Washington, sitting with a book in hand and the word “Read” in arresting bold font. The idea is that if you want to be like your favorite stars, you should read like they do. Or take the “readers are leaders” campaigns. It would be much more accurate to say that “leaders are readers” (in fact, that’s what Truman actually said), but the advantage to saying readers are leaders is that you can draw a straight line from the act of reading to the reward of leadership. The unintentional message is that books contain cash, not just words.

This isn’t the right view of literacy. Reading is not a skill or hobby particular to certain personalities; it’s a thoroughly human activity that benefits us at an existential and not just financial level. True, what people read and how often they are reading will depend much on individual temperament and life situation. I also don’t want to be misconstrued as saying any reading is good reading (that self-evidently false idea has been peddled to my generation’s injury). What I am saying is that literacy and reading is not about becoming more employable. That’s not why we are creatures that crave stories and words. Rather, literacy is an elemental part of who we are as divine image bearers, fashioned in the likeness of a Creator who is supremely verbal and treasures the written word.

Karen Swallow Prior made just this point a while back ago in a piece for The Atlantic called, “How Reading Makes Us More Human.” Prior is a Christian and professor of literature at Liberty University. She summarizes beautifully the transcendent blessings of reading:

Because it goes beyond mere biology, there is something profoundly spiritual — however one understands that word — about the human ability, and impulse, to read. In fact, even the various senses in which we use the word captures this: to “read” means not only to decipher a given and learned set of symbols in a mechanistic way, but it also suggests that very human act of finding meaning, of “interpreting” in the sense of “reading” a person or situation. To read in this sense might be considered one of the most spiritual of all human activities.

It is “spiritual reading” — not merely decoding — that unleashes the power that good literature has to reach into our souls and, in so doing, draw and connect us to others. This is why the way we read can be even more important than what we read. In fact, reading good literature won’t make a reader a better person any more than sitting in a church, synagogue or mosque will. But reading good books well just might.

As a native Kentuckian, I have encountered many people who imagined a great gulf between a book and actual work. I’ve even heard the literary life called “lazy” and contrasted with the “honest, hard work” of a rural or industrial life. Granted, a lot of this comes from issues of class and economy that I have neither the desire nor wisdom to parse. But perhaps a reason this thinking persists is that those of us who are avid readers have tried to market literacy as a hobby for some instead of enrichment for all. C.S. Lewis once wrote that friendship and art were things without any survival value; rather, they give value to our survival. I might even suggest that literacy imparts both!

If you can be successful without being a bookworm, by all means pursue your God-given gifts. You don’t need a Master’s degree or an impressive personal library in order to live a rich, God-honoring, neighbor-loving life. But when it comes to loving the written word and the soul-building exercise of reading, don’t fall for the trap of “flashing the cash.” The troubles of a small bank account cannot compare with those of a small, Bible-starved imagination.

Hoping While “Cast Away”

The year 2000 saw two Oscar nominated films about men who have everything taken from them except their will to live. Most of us remember Gladiator, which took home Best Picture and has become a hugely popular cultural narrative. Christian audiences in particular (myself included) have embraced the story of Maximus’s integrity and courageous fight to avenge his family and save his country from a demented man.

It’s the other film, however, that resonated more deeply with me. Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away is a better film than Gladiator for several reasons, but chief among them is this: Whereas Maximus’s victory is in subjugating his enemies, Chuck Noland’s (Tom Hanks) victory is in accepting his own powerlessness. Cast Away is not just a powerful survival tale, it is a brazenly pro-life, hopeful perspective on redemption in the face of existential inertia. Every Christian should watch and contemplate on this film.

Before his plane goes down in the Pacific Ocean (in an awesomely horrifying sequence, brilliantly staged and produced), Chuck Noland is a man on a mission. He operates his FedEx plants with precision and exactness, demanding that his employees resist the “sin of losing track of time.” Everything he does is timed just right, which explains why his fiance’s (Helen Hunt) Christmas gift to him is an antique pocketwatch. This is a man in control and on time, even when he has to unexpectedly depart for an emergency at work on Christmas Eve. “I’ll be right back,” he tells her.

Most of Cast Away takes place on the desert island on which Noland spends the next four years. Initially all of his time is given to trying to gain rescue; he searches the whole island, lacerating his feet in the process, and climbs to the top of the island’s mountain. Realizing he is utterly alone, Noland then seeks to survive. There’s an important transformation that happens inside Noland here. He suddenly stops moving, stops his manic pace from one place to the next. Even his valiant effort to raft out from the island is rebuffed by the ocean waves, leaving him with a bloody wound and without a sense of control. Thus he spends four years on a tropical prison, until one morning when a peculiar item washes in with the tide and gives him a chance to return to life. Yet even in his odyssey towards home, he loses control and suffers loss.

Like Maximus, Chuck Noland is pushed towards the brink of existence. He finds himself stripped of the power and authority he had grown accustomed to. Unlike Maximus, Noland has nothing to wield in his fight to return home. His is existence with no power, except the power of hope. Toward the movie’s end Noland gives a powerful monologue about the moment on the island that he decided he had to keep living.

What strikes me so deeply in this speech is how Noland recounts that the moment he knew he had to go on hoping was the moment in which he realized he had no control. Once the illusion of his self-reliance was shattered, the hope of seeing home overcame his despair. “All my logic told me I’d never see this place again,” Noland says. Noland escapes the island not because he is strong enough or smart enough, but because he has hope. Hope in himself? No. Hope in what, then?

William Broyles Jr., who wrote Cast Away, does not invoke God, though his imagery is blatantly heavenly (you’ll see what I mean once you watch). Noland says that the realization that he had to survive and keep hoping was like “a warm blanket.” It seems as if Noland chose to hope because he had no choice. It was hope or die. He was powerless to create his own destiny, even when he wanted that destiny to be suicide. “I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to, I had power over nothing.” Noland doesn’t learn to hope in himself, because his hope came just at the moment he realizes he is unable to save himself.

What is the worldview of the unbelieving culture if not “Believe in yourself?” What happens when that is impossible? What is there left to hope in when you find yourself unworthy of your own trust? Chuck Noland, a fictional person created by the imagination of a writer, simply hoped for a nameless salvation. Life was all that he had. I said earlier that Cast Away is brazenly pro-life. In a week in which people like Richard Dawkins assign zero value to the millions born with Downs syndrome, Noland’s words breathe a crucial message of hope to those whose logic says their lives are futile.

The good news is that, for the Christian, hope is not an end to itself. It’s not an irrational leap of faith or defiant holding on against reality. Hope exists because God is always there and is always on the move. Hope for living exists because God is in control and sees the very hairs on our head. Hope in the saddest of times exists because God once became a Man and suffered as we do, yet rose from the dead and has now overcome the world.

Every morning and evening of our existence has meaning, purpose and a hope. Like Chuck Noland’s escape from the desert island, many of us are trying to escape a hopeless, isolated existence. Some are close to despair. I wish those could watch Cast Away and take courage that the tide of life is under the watchful care of a Creator God. It will bring good news in its wake. We cannot give up.

 

 

 

 

 

The Decline of Dawkins

A couple of years ago I attended a lecture by Richard Dawkins while he was doing the promotion circuit for The Magic of Reality, a book intended for children to help them overcome the mythological beauty of religious narrative. The lecture went well; the college loved him and he had no problem soliciting loud and long applause. He performed his usual schtick, a volley of one liners and anecdotes meant to portray religious people as stupid and dangerous. It wasn’t a particularly memorable two hours (I wrote a handful of notes, which I cannot find or remember), but it was Dawkins in his element: Surrounded by the American academy, with its Pavlovian anticipation of delicious put downs and tasty zingers.

It’s more than a little ironic, then, to watch the blogosphere’s recent hammering of him. Currently he’s getting an earful for saying that it would be “immoral” not to abort an unborn child diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. Last month he was taken to task by feminists for tweeting that some kinds of rape were “worse” than others and that those who were offended by such sentiments needed to “learn how to think.”

There’s an interesting dynamic that happens whenever Dawkins is accused in mass media of xenophobia, sexism or pure trollery. His fans, who have devoured and regurgitated his many arguments about the cruelty and backwardness of religious ethics, take to the front lines to defend him, arguing that the problem is not that Dawkins’s views are offensive but that those offended at his views are being irrational. In other words, using Dawkins’s own standards against him is de facto impossible, since rationality always demands what he happens to say.

What does that sound like? Andrew Brown says it sounds like a cult:

[Dawkins’s] website suggests that donations of up to $500,000 a year will be accepted for the privilege of eating with him once a year: at this level of contribution you become a member of something called ‘The Magic of Reality Circle’. I don’t think any irony is intended.

At this point it is obvious to everyone except the participants that what we have here is a religion without the good bits.

Last year he tweeted a recommendation of comments collected by one of his followers at a book signing in the US. Among them were: ‘You’ve changed the very way I understand reality. Thank you Professor’; ‘You’ve changed my life and my entire world. I cannot thank you enough’; ‘I owe you life. I am so grateful. Your books have helped me so much. Thank you’; ‘I am unbelievably grateful for all you’ve done for me. You helped me out of delusion’; ‘Thank you thank you thank you thank you Professor Dawkins. You saved my life’; and, bathetically, ‘I came all the way from Canada to see you tonight.’ With this kind of incense blown at him, it’s no wonder he is bewildered by criticism.

Brown isn’t alone. Three years ago prominent atheist biologist Michael Ruse wrote an article called “Why Richard Dawkins’ Humanists Remind Me of a Religion.” Ruse blasted Dawkins and others within New Atheism for waging war not just on religion but on fellow atheists unwilling to demand that non-scientism be purged from the academy and the culture. Ruse also accused Dawkins of just about the worst thing a person like Dawkins can be accused of–sounding religious. “In the caricaturing of “faith” as murderous fundamentalism, one hears echoes of the bloody and interminable Reformation squabbles between Protestants and Catholics,” Ruse writes. Ouch.

In 2011 Dawkins (finally) responded to those who wanted to see a debate between him and Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, a research professor at Biola University who debated the late Christopher Hitchens. Dawkins’s opening paragraph is encyclopedic in the way it summarizes his attitude towards any and all not in his pantheon:

Don’t feel embarrassed if you’ve never heard of William Lane Craig. He parades himself as a philosopher, but none of the professors of philosophy whom I consulted had heard his name either. Perhaps he is a “theologian”. For some years now, Craig has been increasingly importunate in his efforts to cajole, harass or defame me into a debate with him. I have consistently refused, in the spirit, if not the letter, of a famous retort by the then president of the Royal Society: “That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine”.

Dawkins argued that since Craig did not do enough (apparently) to communicate moral disapproval of the biblical Israelite war against the Canaanites, debating him would be giving platform to genocide. “Would you shake hands with a man like that,” Dawkins asks.

Here we see a major factor in what looks like Dawkins’s imminent decline. Dawkins has a great deal of respected academic work in the field of evolutionary biology. He doesn’t have to debate Ken Ham or Michael Behe in order to legitimize his platform; he has years of peer-reviewed and tenured work that speaks for him. The problem is that philosophy–which has dominated Dawkins’s attention the last several years–is not biology. Dawkins sees, as most advocates of scientism do, a complete continuity between knowledge of biological processes and understanding of philosophical and religious concepts. Dawkins postures himself as an expert on religion because he’s an expert on evolution. The two are the same to him, with the latter offering explanations for the unfortunate existence of the former. But just because they are the same to him doesn’t mean they are the same. Dawkins is neither an expert on religion nor philosophy. Some Christian philosophers accused Dawkins of knowing this and declining the debate so as to not look foolish. That wasn’t correct, though. Dawkins really does believe he is as qualified to speak on religion as anyone. No suprise that his followers mimic this self-deception.

Neither is Dawkins an ethicist or New Testament scholar, and so his argument that Craig’s understanding of the biblical narrative in Judges renders him unfit for a public platform is comically arrogant. It’s sort of like your auto mechanic lecturing you on environmental issues, assuming he is qualified to do so because he spends so much time working on the parts that leave carbon footprints. Likewise, when Dawkins argues that it is wrong to give life to an unborn child with Downs, he unintentionally exposes the moral thiness of scientism. It’s easy to get speaking invitations for your idea that we don’t need religion since science tells us what is good and bad; you’re not gonna be as charming when you practically apply those principles. People want science as their moral guide until it calls them sinners for loving their disabled child.

This is a familiar element to a cult of personality: A conviction that the Personality is all-knowing. Dawkins’s followers will defend whatever he writes (barring, presumably, a religious conversation) because he is a hero of rationality. At this point it doesn’t matter what he says, only that he says something. My father taught me that something was only worth what people were willing to pay for it. Dawkins charges ridiculous sums for the blessing of his presence because there are those who are willing to buy it. Those silly people obviously don’t realize that moral acidity can be found in cheaper venues. YouTube’s commenting feature is free, after all.

Cults of personality usually develop as broader influence shrinks. If that’s true in this instance, the Richard Dawkins period is in its twilight. That’s good news not just for Christian communicators but also for atheist ones too. Dawkins’ proclivity to offend even progressive circles is not productive to New Atheism, which relies quite a bit on the support of an anti-theistic culture within academia. Such culture should seek to rid itself of those who make very public moral fools of themselves. The ageless conversation between naturalism and religion will be much better off when Richard Dawkins is a distant memory, a memetic memorial to an entertaining and useless brand of cultishness.

Must the Haters Hate?

I own a Taylor Swift album. That information falls under the category, “Things I tell people to help them hold me accountable for arrogance,” right next to my 3 year membership in a bowling league. Anyway, I’m not a “hater” of T-Swizzle. I enjoy a good deal of her music; her early hits are sweet and innocent and buck the sexual nihilism of most pop music.

Alas, her latest single dares me to soon patronize the Used Book and Music Exchange. I understand the appeal of its bouncy rhythm and Pharrell-inspired (=plagiarized) music video. And of course it will continue to be a huge hit, since there are levels of celebrity that renders one’s sales invincible. I’m not too apprehensive about that, so don’t hear me declaring scorched earth when I say there’s a meme in “Shake It Off” that is quite common in American conversational culture and quite deleterious to it. It’s the “haters gonna hate” meme.

Now Swift certainly didn’t coin the phrase. According to the invaluable resource Know Your Meme, “haters gonna hate” was heard in pop music as early as 2000. The difference between then and now is that “haters gonna hate” has become more than a clever backhand to would-be judges of lifestyle. There are far too many people who really believe that “haters gonna hate”—or a more grammatically respectable equivalent—is an appropriate response to voices that express criticism or questioning.

What does the phrase mean? For one thing, it means the words of the “hater” are as irrelevant as a dog’s barking. It’s just noise, not anything worthy of consideration, but empty “hate” produced by a “hater.” Unfortunately the meme hits on something that is often true; we are a generation specializing in inarticulate outrage. Still, anything that is worth saying or doing should be defensible with words and ideas, not just immediate dismissals that use fallacious reasoning such as: “You said negative things about what I just did. Trolls also say negative things; therefore, you are a troll.”

This is important, not because people look to Swift for intellectual guidance, but because when this mindset is adopted, the source of truth becomes the majority. Think about it as an internet chat room; if Jeff says something that Jill doesn’t like, who determines who the “hater” is? The chat room does. If people like what Jeff said, then Jill is the troll. If they favor Jill’s point, then Jeff is the troll. Give it a more meaningful context and the seriousness becomes obvious. In a town hall meeting Betty says something that Bob disagrees with. At this point Bob has a choice: He can express through reasons and ideas why Betty is wrong, or he can say she is being unkind or unfair. If the gathering does not properly value truth, but instead carries vague ideas that rely on buzzwords like “intolerance,” then his choice is obvious. He can avoid making any sort of argument and instead paint Betty as a “hater who hates.” Why listen to a hater?

The oft-unspoken conclusion to this line of thinking is called the genetic fallacy. The genetic fallacy appeals to the source of a claim in determining its validity. “Consider the source” is often used to disarm an argument based on the person making it. Yet this is not a valid way of judging ideas. If a person is shown to be a troll, that just means he is a troll; it doesn’t make what he says false. That’s just as true if we substitute the word “fundamentalist.” “Stop being a fundamentalist,” or, “I heard the same thing from my fundamentalist church” is frequently advanced as evidence that an argument about biblical gender or inerrancy should be dismissed. Yet even if the source of the argument is a fundamentalist, or shares beliefs with other fundamentalists, that doesn’t have any bearing on the validity of what he is saying.

The utilization of the genetic fallacy is widespread, especially among those who ought to know better. In February a doctoral student at Harvard wrote this essay, urging her university to shelve “academic freedom” in favor of “academic justice,” by which she meant being willing to censor certain ideas or people from campus if judged to be contrary to Harvard’s sensibilities. The argument shows a total acceptance of the genetic fallacy; it is not necessary to demonstrate why something is false, only that it is icky or its proponents rude. Haters gonna hate.

New Atheists have picked up on this, too. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris famously slandered religious people with being either open or closeted homicidal fanatics. This allowed him to sidestep the hard philosophical work of considering religion’s metaphysical and anthropological claims; once he established that religious people are monsters, there’s no need to listen to their arguments. Murderers gonna murder. Fortunately for New Atheism there are more sophisticated manifestations than that. Pascal Boyer scintillatingly titled his book Religion Explained, which used a discipline called cognitive science of religion (CSR) to show that religious belief is generated by evolutionary processes and mechanisms that are sensitive to finding meaning and patterns. Michael Shermer gave this argument popular expression with How We Believe, which concluded that religion cannot be true because it is not based on evidence but under-evolved biochemical impulses. Believers gonna believe. These arguments have been persusasive for many of the same people who rally around the kind of ideas in the aforementioned Harvard Crimson piece.

In sum: Human flourishing depends on honest evaluation of ideas for their truth and goodness. Building little orthodoxies and excluding from it the “haters” who “gonna hate” is the antithesis of a civilized culture. Of course that’s not what Taylor Swift is trying to do; she’s trying sell records. Still, it’s a point worth making.