How will the post-pandemic church pay the bills? Clicking on headlines like this, along with the usual parade of daily updates, warnings and statistics have become part of my grim COVID daily reading ritual. Forever scanning the horizon in search of some sign of clarity for what the future might hold when it comes to public worship or the gathered life of the church more broadly. This particular headline, unsurprisingly, wasn’t particularly encouraging. According to a Barna Group study, 65% of American churches have seen donations decline during the pandemic. Incredibly, one in five churches may be forced to close their doors in the next 18 months. I don’t know if the same numbers would map precisely on to Canadian realities, but the general trends aren’t hard to recognize. Read more
Posts from the ‘Culture’ Category
One of the (many) things that regularly irritates my kids about their dear old dad is that he has this exasperating tendency to insist upon precision and consistency in language. I feel sorry for them, on one level. The burden of being subjected to a father with tendencies that can run toward a dry and dour rationalism is surely one that no one should have to bear. This is no doubt among the (many) childhood ordeals they will have to unpack with a therapist at some point in the future.
One of our consistent linguistic and conceptual battlegrounds over the years was around “I feel” language. I would ask some innocuous question like, “Did you clean up the dishes?” and would be met with a response like, “I feel like it’s my brother’s turn.” Or, I would say, “When is your assignment due?” and hear “I feel like it’s next Tuesday.” Often, these interactions would end with a certain someone pleading, with no small amount of weary (and wearisome) vexation, “I’m not asking how you feel, I’m asking what you think!! What I’m looking for is a concrete piece of data not a report on your subjective experience of my question!” At this point, I’m sure that my kids would have been grateful if their dad would have kept his feelings and/or thoughts to himself.
My frustrations with “I feel” language and how it is often used got a bit of a jolt while reading Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the Twenty First Century this morning. In the opening pages of a chapter on “Liberty,” where Harari is musing about the fragility of liberalism, the relative recency of democracy, the mystery of human freedom, and what elections are really about, he says this:
When Britain needed to decide whether it should leave the European Union, Prime Minister David Cameron didn’t ask Queen Elizabeth II, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Oxford and Cambridge dons to resolve the issue. He didn’t even ask the members of Parliament. Rather, he held a referendum in which each and every Brit was asked: “What do you feel about it.”
You might counter that people were asked “What do you think?” rather than “What do you feel?,” but this is a common misperception. Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality. If democracy were a matter of rational decision-making, there would be absolutely no reason to give all people equal voting rights—or perhaps any voting rights at all. There is ample evidence that some people are far more knowledgeable and rational than others, certainly when it comes to specific economic and political questions…
[F]or better or worse, elections and referendums are not about what we think. They are about what we feel… Democracy assumes that human feelings reflect a mysterious and profound “free will,” that this “free will” is the ultimate source of authority, and that while some people are more intelligent than others, all humans are equally free. Like [Albert] Einstein and [Richard] Dawkins, an illiterate maid also has free will, and therefore on election day her feelings—represented by her vote—count just as much as anybody else’s.
My back instinctively goes up when I read passages like this. I am a thinker not a feeler, for heaven’s sake! Don’t insult me by telling me that my rational reflection upon the issues of the day isn’t the primary factor informing my vote! Don’t tell me that elections are really mostly about taking the emotional temperature of a population rather than reflecting the will of an informed, engaged, and rational electorate! Um, well, actually, I guess if I really think about it there are a lot of fairly dumb and poorly informed people out there… There actually are a lot of people for whom elections are mostly an opportunity to emote in all kinds of ugly and destructive directions. But that’s obviously just the people who vote differently than me!
And there’s the rub, right? Most of us can look at Harari’s words above and apply them quite easily to others. If we happen to not be huge fans of Brexit or Donald Trump or Justin Trudeau—each being the result of democratic processes, however flawed—we can quite easily and naturally grumble about how unreflective the majority is, how led around by reactive emotionalism and uncritical consumption of biased media, etc. But our views are obviously down to our rationality, moral sensitivity, political acumen, etc. The votes of others might be (and probably are—how else to explain them?!) attributable to mere feelings. But our vote is the result of thinking!
It’s not particularly flattering to liberal democracies or to elections to describe them as essentially referendums on our feelings. But if we take a step back from our natural defensiveness, it doesn’t take too long to see that there is a great deal of truth to this. Fox News is a 24/7 outrage machine, appealing in all kinds of primal and visceral ways to people’s feelings about what’s going on in the world. The New York Times op/ed page has essentially devoted the last four years to howling in protest at the presidency of Donald Trump. Both sprinkle rational arguments into their commentary on the world, but their headlines and general tone appeal often appeal directly, sometimes exclusively to our feelings. Feeling, not thinking, is what drives the Internet, after all. We click on stuff that makes us feel things. As Jonathan Haidt has persuasively argued, human beings are not primarily rational creatures who occasionally let feelings play a role; we are emotional and intuitive creatures who use reason to justify our feelings.
This is, as I say, not particularly flattering, at least on one level. At least since the Enlightenment we have been pleased to think of ourselves as rational thinking machines. But from a Christian perspective, Harari’s implicit analysis of human nature ought not be neither devastating nor surprising. The Christian call has always been (or should always have been) to sacrificial love, to mercy, to forgiveness, to grace. None of these things are rational responses to the world. Each, in its own way, is an appeal to our feelings—they are indeed, a call to feel rightly in the world. We are called to do more than feel, of course. Our feeling must take place alongside thinking and acting. But Christians, of all people, should have the conceptual equipment in our locker to take on board descriptions of human nature like Harari’s. Well of course elections are referendums on human feelings! Feeling is central to who we are how we operate! We have been created not just to mechanically grind through rational arguments but to feel things! And we bear the image of a God who feels and who has loved his creation in all kinds of inexplicably irrational ways. Feelings aren’t an embarrassing interruption into an otherwise rational human nature. They are a crucial part of the package.
Who knows, perhaps my kids were onto something with all their “I feel” language? Maybe they were expressing a fairly deep truth about who we are, about what moves us, and about what’s actually going on under the surface of most of what we say and do (and post) in the world.
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post called “I’m Not Spiritual but Not Religious (But I Can See it From Here). It was a gesture of empathy, if of an exceedingly grudging sort, toward some of what might be animating this ubiquitous declaration that echoes throughout the post-Christian landscape. I could appreciate, I said, the suspicion of institutions and the labour they require. I get it, I said, that it’s frustrating to come to a religious institution with a hunger for God and meaning and get asked to join a committee. It’s understandable, I said, that endless debate and “discernment” and bureaucracy can have the effect of stifling the profound human yearning to know and be known by God. Given some of the drearier realities of what the word “religion” conjures up for many, I could understand why some gravitate toward a statement like, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Read more
There are probably better things to think about than the toxic polarizing hostilities of our cultural discourse while riding a motorcycle through the Rocky Mountains on a glorious fall Monday. I could have simply exulted in the beauty all around me or opened myself up to mid-life epiphany of some sort or another. And to be fair, I did do a fair bit of the former—the Rockies in autumn are simply spectacular (no epiphanies to speak of, alas). But I had just listened to a podcast… and just finished a book… and read a few articles about the corrosive effects of social media on democracy and the world more generally. There were some things I just couldn’t get out of my mind. And you have to fill six hours alone with your thoughts inside a helmet somehow, right? Read more
Six months into this pandemic my sense is that fatigue has well and truly settled in for many people. We’re tired of all the restrictions, inconveniences and uncertainty, obviously. We’re tired of the way the same handful of headlines seem to dominate the news every day, tired of the dull drip of dopamine produced by our listless doom-scrolling, tired of the endless politicizing of this virus, tired of the fear-mongering and conspiracy theorizing, tired of being tired. Many of us have spent far more time thinking, speaking, and writing about this thing than we would have ever wanted. I certainly have. Read more
“What do you wanna listen to now?” My wife asked me this question a handful of times from the passenger seat as we made our way over the Rockies and back to help our kids settle into college last weekend. Twenty-five hours in transit gives you plenty of time for listening to stuff, whether it’s podcasts, audio books, or music. Each time the question came, I would half-heartedly ponder the request for a few seconds and then respond with something along the lines of, “Um, I don’t know, nothing’s really coming to mind… I kinda need to see my options.” My wife would then furrow her brow at me, scroll through Apple Music on one of our phones, and then usually end up picking either something that one of us had downloaded recently and was thus near the top of our screens or something we had listened to in the past. Read more
I have always been suspicious of cheerleaders. Not literal cheerleaders as in the (usually) female visual accessories to (usually) male sporting events (a sexist and retrograde phenomenon, if ever there was one, but that’s another post). No, the cheerleaders I’m thinking of are those who uncritically line up behind their preferred political party or religious perspective or ideology and, well, cheer along. Read more
It seems that an external review into complaints from former and current employees at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg has uncovered “pervasive and systemic racism” and a “toxic culture.” A rather awkward finding for an institution devoted to, well, human rights. One might expect that if any workplace was to be characterized by equality, compassion, dignity, fairness, etc., it would be the CMHR. One’s expectations would, it seems, be rather too optimistic. Read more
Even in normal times, late July tends to be a time when things slow down. Church programs have mostly paused for the summer. Services are sparsely attended as many people flock to the cabin or the mountains or wherever else. For those stuck at work, it can be a hot, sluggish stretch of time where inspiration and motivation are in short supply. And this is, again, in normal times. During COVID time? Well, everything feels somehow worse. Words, and the motivation to produce them, seem to have abandoned me. That’s how it’s felt over the last few weeks at any rate. But a few things have been rattling around my head over the last little while. A quiet Monday morning seems as good a time as any to dislodge them. Read more
I don’t know much about Rachel Hollis. I haven’t read her books or listened to her marriage podcast or engaged with any of the other media she produces. I know very little about the Hollis brand and what I do know comes second hand. There was an article about her that made the rounds recently. And then she came up on a podcast that I listened to recently. My impression is that she’s built a quite significant following by offering a “get your act together” jolt of personal responsibility combined with an emphasis upon and commitment to vulnerability and authenticity. It certainly seems to be a winning combination in the digital age where we can’t seem to get enough of authenticity or advice. Read more
Yesterday, a group of prominent artists, writers, and academics signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine decrying the rising tide of illiberalism and ruthlessly policed ideological conformity in public discourse. There are some impressive names on the list: Margaret Atwood, Atul Gawande, Gloria Steinem, Salman Rushdie, and J.K. Rowling are just a few of the more than one hundred fifty signatories who are growing increasingly uneasy about “cancel culture” and the censuring of any viewpoints that don’t align with the orthodoxies of the moment. Read more
Remember how last year I said I was done writing these rambling birthday letters to you now that you are adults? Well, I lied. You can add this latest transgression to the sad list that I’ve accumulated over nearly two decades as your father. Each year on this day I tend to dissolve into a puddle of sentimental nostalgia mixed in with a generous dose of neurotic longing for your futures and, naturally, this garbled mess has to find expression somewhere, right? You’ll thank me for this later, no doubt. Ahem. Read more
I’ve hesitated to say much in response to the grim spectacle of America ablaze with protests against the racism, police brutality, and appalling murder of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis. My justifications for silence often wander down familiar trails. What can I say that others can’t say or haven’t already said better? I’m not American; what right do I have to say anything about a social reality that is not my own? What good does adding to an amorphous chorus of condemnation/white guilt really do? Isn’t ninety percent of what’s going online today a flailing combination of virtue signalling and emoting out loud? What good is one more wagging white finger against racism? Read more
I was listening to a podcast the other day and the topic of “guilty pleasures during a pandemic” came up. What are watching and listening to these days? What distractions are getting us through the days? How are we spending our time now that we have so much more of it to spend at home? Even those admirable souls who are using COVID-19 as an opportunity to take up virtuous new hobbies like building their own furniture or making quilts for the less fortunate or learning a new language must spend the odd hour or two on less laudable pursuits, right? Right? The rest of us sure hope so. Read more
Some people don’t know how to respond to throwaway questions. You know, the kind of verbal ephemera that so many us daily traffic in to fill up social spaces? The classic example is, of course, “How are you?” We’re rarely really interested in the answer to the question. We mostly just pause long enough for the obligatory “fine, “good,” or “busy” before moving on to the next item on the agenda. But occasionally people forget their lines and do crazy things like actually tell you how they’re doing. Maybe this pandemic has opened up some time and space for reflection. Maybe we don’t have as many important things to rush off to. Maybe we’re finding more time to ponder the “normal” we’ve lost or are in the process of losing. Maybe we’re doing some re-evaluating of priorities and asking questions about what we’ve been doing and why we’ve been doing it. Read more
Why COVID-19? What is the meaning of this global pandemic that we are all currently living through? This is a question that might sound nonsensical to many readers. It’s a rather embarrassing category confusion. Seeking to find “meaning” in something like a virus is silly, at best. Read more
A few field notes from a conversation with my wife over breakfast this morning…
“I think I might be able to get used to this social distancing thing,” my wife says. I think she might be kidding, but perhaps only slightly. One thing this virus has forced many of us to do is to fairly drastically alter the pace of our lives. We’re not running around to endless meetings and the gym and yoga class and chasing the kids’ sporting calendar and the social obligations that so easily clog up our calendars. We’re being forced to sit. At home. Often without anything pressing to do. Read more
Sometime earlier this week, I read the post of some pastor of a small church somewhere out there in Internet-land who said his modest goal for the week was to “record a sermon that didn’t resemble a grainy Taliban capture video.” That made me laugh. And it was a sentiment that obviously resonated for many of us who pastor small churches and for whom the idea of recording or livestreaming services would have seemed absurd even a few weeks ago, whether for philosophical or technological reasons. Or both. Read more