This post is part of an on-going series examining sloth in Christian communities.
I recently happened upon an insightful quote from Alan Jacobs’ book How to Think:
You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup. If you quote some unapproved figure, or have the “wrong” website open on your browser, and someone turns up his nose and says, “I can’t believe you’re reading that crap”—generally, not a good sign…The true believer is always concerned, both on her behalf and on that of the other members of her ingroup, for mental purity.
I found this in a recent piece by Aimee Byrd, in which she quotes something she wrote about Jacobs’ book:
Jacobs spends a lot of time building on C.S. Lewis’ teaching about the Inner Ring, or “‘moral matrix’ that becomes for a given person the narrative according to which everything and everyone else is judged,” reasoning that if we are so caught up in our own Inner Rings, we begin to look at outsiders to our Ring as Repugnant Cultural Others (55). Jacobs calls these Inner Ring zealots “true believers.” This kind of tribalism really doesn’t sharpen our thinking or properly love our neighbors. When this happens, we are not truly being loyal to our group or our belief systems that we hold dear because we bind one another to strict orthodoxy of the Inner Ring rather than to the truth and rather than freedom to learn more, love well, and be sharpened. Inner Ring tribalism also produces pretenders who never really grasp the truths we hold dear. Finding common ground with those who hold different convictions than us, even politically or religiously, does not necessarily weaken our own convictions. If they are in truth, they will be strengthened as we are stretched in our thinking.
(By the way, C.S. Lewis’ essay, “The Inner Ring,” is brilliant.)
Jacobs is correct. Your environment is not healthy for thinking if you’re mocked or frowned upon for quoting outside the “acceptable” persons or sources. Another sign of unhealth is when doctrine or practice is accepted merely because an approved person said or holds it. If your local church promotes doctrine (theological, cultural, political, or otherwise) by appealing to respected names, podcasts, books, or institutions instead of careful argument from the word of God, then your local church has thrown out the sufficiency and authority of the Bible and replaced it with something else. If different perspectives and positions are dealt with through sneers, insults, insinuation, or canceling, your environment is toxic, and you should probably leave.
The type of environment Jacobs describes is simply a form of cancel culture (a popular form of online bullying, similar to organized negative reviews). There’s a lot of complaining these days about “cancel culture.” I share those concerns. Cancel culture is ugly and unChristian. What boggles me is when the same people I hear condemning cancel culture are so obviously participating in it. (Don’t be deceived. Conservative Christianity has a vibrant and active cancel culture; it’s just not seen as such.)
We see this culture in churches where “liberal” or “conservative,” “misogynist” or “feminist,” “Marxist” or “fascist,” “socialist” or “social justice” are weaponized, used as insults or intimidation to garner agreement.
I’ve seen this behavior grow over the past two decades, particularly among the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” crowd and the generations it discipled. I wish I could say I am surprised, but I’m not. I’ve been predicting it for just as long.
One of the reasons I, as a young Christian, grew under the preaching of John Piper is that he pointed people to the text of Scripture. He pointed to words, phrases, sentences, connections, and made an argument from the author’s words. Though he aimed at communicating truth, he wasn’t telling us what to think, so much as how to think. He wanted his listeners to go home and read the Bible for themselves.
But I noticed a difference in some of the celebrity pastors propped up by YRR leaders. They had great theology. They could explain doctrines. They applied and illustrated the text really well. They could contextualize and communicate with the “young” (now solidly middle-aged) generation. But, their preaching too often only skimmed the passage. They didn’t show their listeners how they drew their conclusion from the Bible’s words. In short, they were telling the next generation what to think and how to live without teaching them how to think. The YRR generation ate it up.
Such an approach has disastrous consequences. If the leader entrusted with telling you what to think should die, leave, or be disqualified, you’re left unable to interpret the text for yourself. (This is why out-right frauds and morally-bankrupt pastors continue to gather congregations even after being exposed.) “Fortunately,” such movements tend to offer an inner ring network of thought-leaders, accepted books, podcasts, and institutions to which one may turn for “help.”
I’m seeing the fruit as younger generations that, due to social media, get a peek behind the evangelical curtain. When the wizard is not all that he was puffed up to be, they grow disgruntled. They leave their theological movements and traditions, sometimes bailing on orthodoxy and Christianity altogether. For too many, the reason is not that their eyes have been opened to new doctrinal truth, but because having grown disillusioned with those who told them what to think (and not knowing how to think), they turned to someone else to tell them what to think (and it happened to align with what they wanted to think).
Having authored Worthy, I see this now and again with some who bail on complementarianism for egalitarianism because they’re (rightly) fed up with certain misapplications of complementarianism. Yet, when I read their arguments for their new egalitarianism, I find them just as unconvincing as the arguments for the complementarian misapplications they rejected. They’re so anxious to stick it to the old error, that they rush into a new one.
Likewise, we hear from women across the country who are on staff at churches, colleges, and seminaries, women seeking understanding conversations about how women are mistreated and devalued in their complementarian institutions. They can’t raise concerns about it because those who do are labeled as heterodox, heretics, liberals, or “not on board with our vision.” Rather than do the hard work of listening to and understanding their sisters, and then examining themselves and their institutions, it is easier to label, silence, dismiss.
Why do we act like this? There are several reasons: fear of being wrong, fear of being ostracized, fear of being on the “losing side,” fear of losing income, etc. One oft-overlooked reason is sloth—good, old-fashioned laziness.
Our lives are busy. Issues are complicated. (Donors, advertisers, subscribers, buyers, and conference organizers are finicky and dollars are few.) It’s easier and less time-consuming to have someone tell me what to think. So, I pick a theological camp or tribe. I choose pundits and thinktanks to tell me what to believe about polity, gender, doctrine, pastoral practice, politics, economics, novel viruses, etc. But what if someone poses a critique or challenge to the status quo? Have no fear! The thinktank will do the thinking for me! All I need do is look for the forthcoming journal, book, or daily podcast episode. Like a mother bird, these more mature thinkers will find the worms, digest them, and then vomit them into my mouth—easy as pie. All I have to do is chirp for them. And if someone calls me on it, all I have to say is, “That dude is brilliant. I think he knows more than any of us about it.” See? I don’t have to think; I only need to consume their thinking.
Likewise, it is simply easier for leaders and teachers to assert that this theological position is correct because “solid” theologians and institutions hold to it. How do I know they’re “solid?” All the “solid” people say so. Duh. And that other theological position is wrong or dangerous because “everyone” can see where it leads. Who is “everyone?” The “solid” people. Duh. It’s easier to raise our voices, insult our opponents, threaten, dismiss, stereotype and characterize questioners than do the hard work of showing and teaching one how to understand or to ask a question and listen to another perspective.
We face these choices daily. Will we tell people what to think or teach them how to think? Will we be told what to think or learn to think for ourselves? What authors, podcasts, and preachers will we pick—those who tell or those who show?
One path is hard work. The other is as easy as opening our mouths and let another regurgitate a worm.