What are your Facebook posts actually saying?

I recently read a book (whose author and affiliation will remain nameless — for now) that purported to be addressed to one group of people, people the author disagreed with. But it was clearly actually addressed to people who already believed what he believed and wanted to be patted on the back for being so right. It annoyed me.

It’s the same problem I have with “open letters.” Open letters pretend to be addressed to a certain person or group, but that’s a fiction. If the writer only cared about the addressee, it wouldn’t be a public letter; it would be a private, “closed” letter. An open letter is a rhetorical tool to address one group of people while pretending to address another.

I think most writers are aware of this, which is why they write open letters in the first place. But I think this same phenomenon occurs all the time in everyday communication, between people who probably aren’t aware of who their language is addressing and what it’s actually saying.

This is what I’m afraid of: even when we think we’re talking to people who disagree with us, we only end up communicating to people on our side. Because we tend to seek out information that confirms what we believe and ignore information that contradicts it, we’re more likely to reach people who already agree with us and be ignored by people who don’t.

But it gets worse. Because we’re so good at rationalizing, viewing arguments that contradict our beliefs actually makes us work harder to defend them, so that we often end up believing more strongly in our original position after confronting disconfirming evidence. Which means that your argument could end up making the person you’re addressing more confident in their beliefs, not less.

This doesn’t mean we can’t say anything. It just means we should be careful what arguments we make and how we address them. Everything posted to Facebook is, in a sense, an “open letter.” Because your audience is so undefined, you can’t predict how people are going to react to it. It could have consequences opposite to what you actually intended for it.

Keep your eye on the ball. Know your audience. The more specific your audience, the more specific you can make your message. If you want to talk to the world, fine. Just make sure to manage your expectations.

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My Year In Review — Part I

Ten months ago, I posted a short list of five focuses that would determine how I spent my time and evaluated my success over the following twelve months. Since I’m getting close to the point where I’m going to have to renew and revise my focuses for this coming (academic) year, I figured it would be good to take a look back and see how I’d done.

Focus #1: Apply to, choose, and prepare for grad school

Grade: PASS

Applications: CHECK. Figuring out which schools to apply to wasn’t terribly hard; but narrowing it down was. Because I only spent two years at the school I graduated from, I had a limited number of potential referrers. I narrowed it down to four: Yale Divinity School, Emory’s Candler Divinity School, Duke Religion, and the University of Chicago.

My gift for standardized testing meant my GRE score was going to be a plus, but I was afraid the quality of my references would negate it, so in my mind it really came down to the statements of purpose. Duke and Chicago were the most fun to write; Yale and Emory, much less so. Sending transcripts from six different institutions was also a hassle, but I got it all done with time to spare.

Choose: CHECK. I got accepted to Duke, Chicago, and Emory. I had a great visit with Mark Goodacre, who is the NT program in the Duke Religion department, and took a perfunctory visit to Emory, but Chicago was always my front runner and my visit there sealed the deal. I got the same, usual “rah-rah” there as anywhere else, but I grokked the place, so that’s where I’m headed. Besides, they offered me more money.

Preparation: CHECK. I audited two semesters of Hellenistic Greek and exceeded my professor’s expectations for the dedication of an audit student. I read books by two of my future professors, as well as additional reading based off of the reading lists published for their doctoral examinations. I’ve been adding relevant German vocabulary, though I don’t have many good readings to practice on.

Technically, this goal isn’t complete, since the “preparation” portion isn’t over. I still need to keep up my Greek over the summer, and hopefully do some more reading in New Testament, Hellenistic and Jewish backgrounds, and social theory. Also I need to figure out where I’m going to live and what classes I’m going to take and all that.

I still pass, though, and it’s a big one. This was the central focus of my year; getting into grad school was the key reason for spending my year here in North Carolina in the first place. Success kid is a success.

Next up: “Learn about and from people I care about”

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A Letter to Elliot Roger and Myself

Dear Elliot (and Ben),

I’ve addressed this letter to both of us, lest the thought ever crosses my mind (or any other reader’s) that I’m such a great guy because, hey, I didn’t go on a shooting spree and kill innocent people because I was upset about girls. You’ve effectively lowered the bar for a “good guy,” at least in the minds of those of us who want to think about ourselves as “good guys.”

Before we start: a little bit about me. I’m twenty-five, and I am also a virgin. I have also never kissed a girl, or held one’s hand. I’ve never had a girl ask me out, or taken a girl to a dance in school, or had a girl send me a Valentine. In my life I’ve gone on two slightly awkward dates. There’s a lot going on in your video, so I can’t address everything. Here are a few thoughts for you.

I know your pain. We’ve all grown up being told that relationships are in our future. We’ve been told, over and over, by our parents, friends, mentors, and the media, that we should expect relationships, that they’re owed to us. This is not true. We are not owed anything. We are not promised anything. It’s just not the way the world works.

We’ve been lied to. I don’t think they were malicious lies – the people who love us are confident that we will find a fulfilling relationship, and so they tell us so. Unfortunately, as we’ve both discovered, that confidence is often misplaced. The real test of your character is not whether you feel entitled to the relationship you want, but how you respond when you realize that your entitlement does not match up with reality.

Elliot, I don’t know you, so I have no idea if you ever really, truly grasped that you were not entitled to love or sex. But I suspect you did, that the thought had at least occurred to you, even if you dismissed it. I believe this because I think fear is more powerful (and painful) than anger. Anger plus fear – fear of never having something you desperately want, something you think you can’t survive without — is more likely to cause us to lash out than anger alone.

Your anger and fear caused you to lash out against others. My anger and fear has caused me to lash out against myself. I wish I had your confidence, Elliot. You’ve obviously got a little bit of swagger. I have no swagger, and I grew up hating myself for it. My response was less wrong than yours. But neither response – turning anger and fear into violence against others or violence against yourself – is the right course of action.

I know the pain of rejection, of being ignored, of being convinced that you’re going to be rejected, whether or not you even try. I know what it’s like to have passionate feelings for someone who will never feel the same way about you. The feeling of weakness, of emasculation, of being powerless, of having your emotions dictated by someone who might not even know you exist – that’s the kind of pain that drove me into the depression that nearly destroyed my life.

The pain is real. But so is recovery. That’s the world I live in now. It’s not fun, but it gets better. It could have gotten better for you.

Quite frankly, Elliot, a lot of the things you say about girls have crossed my mind, as well. As I said above, I’d like to think of myself as a “good guy.” I browse through Facebook all the time and judge the guys I see girls with. Despite my lack of swagger, I still think women are blind to my amazing qualities. For me, the scariest part of your video is how easily I can identify with parts of your thought process.

But here’s the thing. You still have a lot to learn. I’m only three years older than you, so I can’t claim to have that much more wisdom. There’s a lot going in your head and your heart, and there’s a lot to address. I’m sure other people with address some of the other subjects you bring up. So let me just suggest that you consider this.

When it comes to relationships, no one is ever just a victim. There are amazing women on your campus, hundreds of them, who feel the exact same way you do. And you know what? Most of them are probably fixated on those “slobs” in the same way you’re fixated on those hot blondes. But there are probably some of them who would have been interested in you, who would have given you the affection you wanted, the sex you wanted, the love you wanted. But if they had asked, you would have said no.

I’m not saying this because I’m assuming you’re a stuck-up asshole. I’m saying it because that’s just the way relationships work. There is no “should” when it comes to attraction; human attraction doesn’t follow any kind of logical rules. Whatever you’ve been raised to believe, there is no such thing as “fair” when it comes to relationships.

Those two awkward dates I mentioned above? There were never any more was because I never asked that girl out again. It was my decision. Did that girl deserve better? I can’t say. Not because she wasn’t a great person – she was friendly and fun and warmhearted and pretty damn cute. But I can’t say whether she “deserved” another chance because the language of “deserving” is totally wrong for talking about relationships. You know that phrase, “the heart wants what the heart wants”? I absolutely hate it, for two reasons: first, because it’s such a cliché; and second, because it’s true. I hate the fact that romance does not follow logical rules. But that’s the way it works.

Part of the reason why I’ve never held a girl’s hand, or kissed her, or (oh god) brushed her hair back behind her ear? Me. I have desires; I have standards. For example, I will never ask a quiet girl out on a date. It doesn’t matter how physically attractive she is, or how much we have in common, or how deep or kind or compassionate or funny she is. It doesn’t matter how attracted she is to me. That’s a standard I have that I won’t give up. Is it fair? There’s no answer to that question. It just is.

The world we actually live in is not the same world you and I were raised to believe we were going to grow up into. It doesn’t work the way we want it to. It’s up to us to come to terms with that.

It’s easier to always be the victim. But you aren’t always the victim and neither am I. Admitting that doesn’t make the pain go away. But it does teach us to act like adults, to extend the same empathy toward women that we extend toward ourselves.

Unfortunately, you will never read this letter, and neither will a younger me, who could have been spared a lot of pain and wasted time. But maybe another guy will.

Grace, truth, and peace,

Ben

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The Big Bang, Evolution, and a Black Box

In his book The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris summarizes Francis Collins’ beliefs about the history of the universe: Collins believes in the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe, divine intervention at the origin of life, and an evolutionary process that brought us to human beings. Even though Collins agrees with Harris about the history of the universe before and after the origin of life, Harris only presents Collins’ views to mock them; he simply assumes that his readers, like he himself, will find the idea of a divine origin of life preposterous.

Of course, it wasn’t Harris’ intention in a book about morality to write an argument against the idea of divine intervention at the origin of life (I assume he has done so elsewhere). But his treatment illustrates the fundamental problem with debating about the origin of life: since all we have is speculation, our conclusions will usually rest on assumptions of what’s plausible.

The debate about origins ultimately boils down to making inferences, inferences that depend on other things we believe. If we’re inclined to believe in supernatural powers for other reasons, we’ll be inclined to accept the divine explanation. If we think the idea of God is ludicrous for other reasons, we’ll assume a naturalistic origin. But either way, because we have no solid information, it will be our preconceived notions of what is plausible that determine what we believe about this “black box.”

(To be clear, my argument isn’t, “Humans weren’t present, so we can’t know.” We have plenty of documentary evidence for the Big Bang and subsequent development of the universe, including the evolutionary process here on earth. We can be confident that those things happened. But we have no reliable information about the origin of life, hence,  a black box.)

The point is: if you’re arguing in circles about the origin of life with a Christian or an atheist, the reality is that both of your beliefs about the subject depend on other things you believe. Spend your time debating those things instead and stop wasting your breath.

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Three Questions We Should Have Asked About World Vision

Like many people of my generation, I’m sick of the Culture War. I’m sick of the conflict, sick of the grandstanding, sick of the vilification, sick of the self-righteous moral superiority exhibited by both sides. Even worse, during my generation’s lifetime, the conflict has transformed from a conflict between evangelicals and other groups to a growing schism within evangelicalism itself. Now that the battle lines are being drawn through evangelical churches, Culture War weariness often means disengaging altogether.

But I refuse to give up on the Culture War. The issues that face us — our treatment of gay and transgender people, the secularization of American society, abortion and reproductive rights — are significant and apathy will neither resolve them nor make them go away. Evangelicals have to address these issues, which means we can’t treat the Culture War itself as the problem. The problem is how we’re fighting it.

The recent skirmish over World Vision is a good case study. For those of you who missed it, World Vision, an ecumenical Christian charity organization with an evangelical bent, announced that they were going to allow Christian employees to be in same-sex relationships. They cited the variety of denominations represented among their staff, many of whom affirm same-sex relationships, as their primary motivation for this policy change. Two days later they reversed their decision, this time citing fidelity to Scripture. The evangelical right was infuriated and then elated; the evangelical left was elated then infuriated.

Predictably, this became an occasion for both camps within evangelicalism to draw lines, raise flags, and attack the other side, usually using the image of poor, suffering, Third World children as an ideological club. Meanwhile, the really interesting — and important — questions went unasked.

1. Can we work together?

World Vision is an organization committed to values all evangelicals share: devotion to God through evangelism and service. In their original announcement, they appealed to these core evangelical values by alluding to the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). This posed an implicit question: how are evangelicals with different convictions about same-sex relationships going work together in service of shared values?

The answer from the right came quickly: in this instance, we can’t. But clear justifications for this position were less evident. Knee-jerk reactions came from the left as well: acceptance of same-sex relationships was not a valid reason to withdraw support from an organization like World Vision, but a clear explanation of why this was an invalid reason was harder to find. What we needed, but didn’t get, was two sides more interested in articulating and arguing a case than capitalizing on an opportunity to reinforce group identity.

Assuming neither side managed to persuade the other, there was still another question: if we disagree, where do we go from here? If we can’t work together to preach the gospel and care for widows and orphans, is there anything we can do together? Are we going to allow the issue of same-sex relationships to stop us from studying the Bible together, from breaking bread together, from worshiping together? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they’re not rhetorical. If the answer is “Yes” to any of these, we need to know, and we need to know why. If this issue is going to divide evangelicalism, we need to understand why, and not simply let our subculture dissolve and implode like an isolated, passive-aggressive marriage.

2. Can we still have unity?

If our division goes deep enough, our unity as evangelicals will become nothing more than a pretense — or in more blunt terms, a lie. If we are approaching, or have already arrived at, an unbridgeable chasm between our two camps, we need to be honest about it. Naturally, both liberals and conservative will claim the authentic evangelical identity as their own, both because it remains part of their identity and because it attracts those caught between. But if the split is coming, it is in everyone’s best interests to admit it. Like other evangelicals, I value Christian unity. But working together means being honest and explicit about our differences. Fighting about who the “real” evangelicals are isn’t accomplishing anything — at least not the things we profess to be interested in accomplishing.

I don’t think we’re there yet. I think we can avert an irresolvable schism. But if we’re going to, we need to determine what we’re really fighting about.

3. What’s really at stake?

Often, in a heated debate, the reason we can’t move forward isn’t because of our arguments. It’s because we’re not arguing about the same thing, or because we’re arguing about the wrong thing. In the wake of the World Vision announcement and the subsequent reversal, the real issue got confused.

The first false issue was the the gospel. Both sides framed same-sex relationships as a referendum on the gospel itself. Evangelicals of both conservative and liberal persuasions argued that this issue determined whether one truly understands the basic message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, the Christ, our Lord. For conservatives, denying the handful of passages which condemn homosexual behavior amounts to abandoning the gospel; for liberals, refusing to allow gay and lesbian Christians the relationships they were created to enjoy constitutes the same.

The second false issue was society. Both sides claimed that the other side was following mainstream American culture — whether they saw that mainstream culture as fundamentally progressive and liberal or backwards and conservative. Evangelicals, it seems, have always been obsessed with our relationship with the surrounding culture and it makes sense, given our history as a shaky middle ground between the isolation of fundamentalism and the assimilation of mainline liberalism. But what this means in practice is that every conflict can be — and usually is — framed as a “selling out” to the pressures of contemporary society or propagating the values of the entrenched status quo.

Of course, the question of same-sex relationships among Christians does impact our understanding of the gospel and our relationship with society of large. But this specific situation allows us to examine a more specific question: is same-sex relationships an issue about which reasonable Christians can disagree? Can we disagree on our interpretation of the relevant passages without breaking fellowship? World Vision initially proposed that it was a question up for debate. Both sides responded by arguing there was no debate, that the other side’s interpretation of the Bible wasn’t just wrong, it was so wrong that it could invalidate the authenticity of the other side’s evangelical faith.

Maybe one side was right. But the question was never raised. The real issue was swept under the rug and replaced by ideological arguments about group identity buzzwords like “gospel” and “society.”

I don’t imagine these questions are all that insightful; my intention is not to “stump” anyone to score rhetorical points or to subtly suggest some kind of implicit answer. I think they’re easy questions to answer — but for whatever reason, they were never even asked, or their answers were assumed and the argumentation was never presented. The Culture War within evangelicalism is always going to be difficult, but it needs to be fought, and it needs to be fought in the right way. We can start by asking the right questions.

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Is a Gay Identity Contradictory to Identity in Christ? Pt. 2

In my previous post, I examined how evangelicals talk about “finding their identity Christ” — that is, regarding God as their supreme significant other. Here, I’ll explore what “identity” means to LGBT people: personal self-definition and an acknowledgment of social realities.

Taking on a gay identity doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. For some people, it just means being out. For others, it entails a more sweeping re-orientation to the world in terms of beliefs, values, and habits. Either way, for gay people, “identity” is, at its core, about self-definition, not self-worth. Self-definition is simply a person’s right to tell the truth about who they are. While self-worth involves a value judgment, self-definition is simply descriptive.

When someone says “I identify as . . .”, it reflects their decision about how to explain an important part of who they are. If someone identifies themselves as a “gay Christian,” it’s because they value that part of who they are and think it’s important that other people know as well. It seems wrong to a lot of people to append anything to “Christian,” but other people do it without anyone wondering whether they are subordinating “Christian” to something else — “Arab Christian,” “southern Christian.” It’s not common but it’s not unprecedented.

Unfortunately, gay identity isn’t always something that people get to choose for themselves. For many people, it’s acknowledgment of the social reality that to a large extent — in mainstream American society as well as evangelicalism — gay people are singled out as different from “the rest of us.” It’s not just that being gay is uncommon; in our society it’s labelled (implicitly if not explicitly) as abnormal. In Christian contexts, the fact that someone is gay is often seen as the most important thing about them.  If someone identifies as a “gay Christian,” it’s may be because they people around made the decision about their identity for them.

Christian identity and gay identity aren’t incompatible, and neither are two different uses of the term “identity.” We need to make sure we understand the words people are using before we use them to draw social dividing lines.

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Is a Gay Identity Contradictory to Identity in Christ? Pt. 1

It’s hard to get a firm grasp on the supposed conflict between the evangelical concept of “finding one’s identity in Christ” and claiming a gay identity. Although the two concepts share the term “identity,” it means something different in each context. In this post, I’ll examine identity in terms of its primary meaning in from an evangelical perspective, dealing primarily with self-image and self-worth, and in my second post I’ll examine identity from an LGBTQ perspective, dealing with self-definition and social realities.

“Finding one’s identity in Christ” can best be defined as how one regards God as a significant other. While in everyday English we use the term “significant other” to talk about our romantic partners, it has a broader meaning. A significant other is any person whose opinions or beliefs help shape your self-image and self-worth. Anyone whose opinion about you is important or relevant — regardless of whether it’s true or accurate — is one of your significant others. “Finding your identity in Christ” means regarding God as the supreme, overriding significant other — the Person whose evaluation of your worth and identity eclipses everyone else’s.

This simply isn’t what a gay person is talking about when they talk about claiming a gay identity. Coming out as gay, or identifying as a “gay Christian,” is not equivalent to denying God’s role as supreme significant other. Indeed, coming out can be a crucial step in finding one’s identity in Christ, because an openly gay Christian has come to the correct understanding of God’s opinion of them, that God loves and values them regardless of their orientation. “Identifying as gay” does not, in and of itself, equate to elevating one’s orientation above God in how it contributes to a person’s self-worth.

Someone might say that they are “proud” of their orientation. But we understand that there is a difference between being proud of something and being prideful. The same distinction applies here. Just because someone says they are “proud” of their orientation or identity does not make them automatically guilty of sin. Someone can draw a false sense of self-worth from being gay, sure — but this isn’t any more or less likely than someone drawing a false sense of self-worth from any other personal characteristic: beauty, intelligence, popularity, etc.

Using the terminology “gay identity” or “identifying as gay” does not, by definition, contradict the evangelical concept of finding identity in Christ, i.e., regarding God as the supreme significant other. Don’t let the overlapping terminology cloud what’s really at issue.

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