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Trust Issues: Responding to Our Cultural Authority Crisis

January 31, 2022

In his book The Last Word, atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, talked about “the fear of religion”: “… I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” This “cosmic authority problem,” Nagel thought, was at the root of modern attempts to explain everything by science. Today, 45 years and more than a few other factors later, has evolved into what might be called a “cultural authority problem.” Its roots lie not only in the philosophical denials of God and His authority that Nagel wrote about but also in what Pope Benedict once referred to as “the dictatorship of relativism … which recognizes nothing as absolute and which only leaves the ‘I’ and its whims as the ultimate measure…” And, of course, upon these ideological foundations, we’ve all had the experience of living in the Information Age, being forced to navigate a dizzying amount of information daily and the many voices constantly vying for our pocketbooks and attention (often by any means necessary). Even before the chaos of the last 24 months, there has been more than enough to spur on our collective distrust. Still, on top of all that, what social institution in American life hasn’t failed us in recent years? The state, churches, education, corporations, big tech, news, even medicine… we don’t trust any of them anymore. To some degree, skepticism of authority is understandable, even commendable. And, when healthy, it’s a necessary ingredient of discernment, a skill required of anyone who wishes not to be brainwashed today. Increasingly, however, skepticism has been replaced by cynicism and is expressed in an immediate distrust anytime anyone tells us anything to think or do. This is not healthy or sustainable, nor is it a biblical way of thinking about authority. If we begin from a Biblical Story instead of the chaos of our cultural moment, we must grant that authority is a God-given feature of life in this world. Beginning with God, the ultimate authority, the Bible describes how God also ordained other authorities, especially His image-bearers. Of course, unlike God, all of these ordained authorities have been twisted and compromised by the Fall. At the same time, the fact that the Bible continues to recognize (even after the fall) both God’s authority and the, should chasten us whenever our discernment is replaced by cynicism. And there’s an awful lot of cynicism these days. Is it possible for Christians to be discerning without being cynical? If so, how? Are there ways to respect authority without being duped? Can we recognize the collapse of our institutions without wholly abandoning them, and perhaps seek to restore them? Christians must answer these questions as part of our cultural witness. Certain existential questions rise to the surface in specific cultural contexts. For example, at a time of tragedy, the question on the top of the cultural surface tends to be, where was God? At this moment, in a culture with a cosmic authority problem, the question is, who can we trust? To help us think through the cultural crisis of authority and the loss of trust, the Colson Center will be hosting a special virtual short course beginning next Tuesday night, February 8. Each of the sessions will feature a presentation and a time for live Q&A. The first three weeks will be led by Dr. Bruce Ashford and will cover the topics of “God’s Authority and the Authorities He Has Ordained,” “Where Did the Crisis of Authority and Trust Come From?” and “How to Cultivate Discernment in an Untrustworthy World.” The fourth week will be led by Dr. Yuval Levin, a scholar from the American Enterprise Institute, who will help us think about the collapse of our cultural institutions and what it would look like to rebuild them. He’s an example of a scholar who can inform Christians on how to think about life in this cultural moment. Each of the four sessions will be recorded and distributed to all who sign up for the course. To register for this course, “The Loss of Trust and the Crisis of Authority,” please visit colsoncenter.org/events.

No Fault Divorce Harms Children

February 24, 2022

A couple of weeks ago, Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister for the United Kingdom, praised what he called an “important” debate in Parliament. He was referring to a law effective April 6, under which married couples no longer have to name any faults before seeking a divorce. Ironically for a member of Britain’s Conservative Party, this idea flies in the face of what “conservative” means. It certainly cuts against conservative foundations articulated by the likes of Edmund Burke and T.S. Eliot. According to these thinkers, family and tradition are the only real bulwarks against the chaos of our atomistic age. As we noted recently, “If we lose our belief in marriage and the family as the foundation of a healthy and flourishing society, there will soon be very little left for ‘conservatives’ to conserve.” But Mr. Raab’s comments got worse. He went so far as to claim that this new law was a positive good, not just for parents seeking divorce, but for children. As he put it, “This vital reform will remove unnecessary conflict from the process by ending the blame game—helping [to] spare children from the harmful effects this can have.” This, “the kids will be fine” line, is not just nonsense: it’s dangerous nonsense. It flies in the face of everything we know about the impact of divorce on the most vulnerable among us. Over 20 years ago, Chuck Colson said, “People who divorce are more likely to die from stroke, heart disease, cancer, and hypertension. Kids from broken homes are more likely to fail in school, abuse drugs and alcohol, commit crimes, and have children out of wedlock.” What Mr. Raab and our friends across the Pond should do is look before they leap. A look at the American experience reveals how this so-called “freedom” has played out here, and the enduring scars it’s left upon children. In the early 1970s, an incredible (and incredibly sad) study was launch, which was later published in book form under the title The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. It told some of the tragic stories of these children. Drs. Judith Wallerstein and Julia Lewis interviewed over a hundred children of divorce in California, hoping to get at the real-world impact of divorce on the increasing number of children growing up in broken homes. They didn’t only interview these individuals as children, but also followed them over the next 25 years. What this study found was devastating. As one reviewer described their findings: [O]nly seven of the 131 children from the original sample experienced a post-divorce home in which they had a good relationship with a step-parent. At this 25-year mark, only 60 percent had contracted for marriage. Two-thirds of the sample decided not to have children. Only 30 percent of the sample received financial support for college, as contrasted with 90 percent of children whose parents were not divorced, an indication of the nature and quality of their troubled relationships with their parents. This story is about far more than stats. It’s about the heartbreaking impact divorce had on these kids’ lives. There’s the woman who almost 30 years later could still see in her mind the details of “the sun striking the patterns on the living room carpet” the day her father left when she was only 4. There’s the boy who refused to take off his heavy coat at school despite the day’s heat in case he’d have to leave at a moment’s notice. There’s the little girl who kept telling her teacher about her new baby brother, except there was no baby, only her little heart’s plea to imagine her parents were still together. Then, there was the 5-year-old who said she needed a new mommy because hers had been “a tense, cranky, unavailable stranger.” There are times when divorce is necessary, but it is always tragic in the same sense as when catastrophic cures like amputation or chemotherapy are necessary. To pretend otherwise is a dangerous fantasy. The Bible sees marriage as a lifelong bond between a man and a woman, but, recognizing the frailty of human nature after the Fall, it allows for divorce in extreme cases, such as abandonment, adultery, or abuse. Highlighting the “wholesome” effects of no-fault divorce is even more reckless than praising the upside of amputation. Divorce is a messy, sometimes necessary, side effect of living in a world full of sin and folly. But while we may have to deal with our human weakness in this way, it’s never something we should excuse by saying that it is for the kids’ good. The cost to children is too high. Its effects on children are too long-lasting for society to allow, let alone encourage. To do so is to ignore the data, the stories, and reality itself. By: John Stonestreet and Timothy D. Padgett

Summit Ministries is Immunizing Students from Bad Ideas

February 18, 2022

Many Christian parents worry about passing on the faith to their children. Sadly, statistics suggest they should. In 2020, the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University found that just 2% of millennials, a generation now well into adulthood, have a biblical worldview. That’s the lowest of any generation since surveys began. Lifeway Research reports that two-thirds of those who attend a youth group as teenagers will drop out of church as adults. A significant aspect of the battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation has to do with ideas. Helping students think correctly about life and the world, God and themselves would be hard enough if they weren’t facing such strong cultural headwinds. But they are, and bad ideas are like viruses. They spread from the mind to the heart, and from person to person, even infecting entire populations. Many young people today leave the faith because they lack the necessary immunity from the bad ideas of our culture. Christian parents must not only present the truth to their kids, they must find ways to immunize them against lies. To do that, we need to know which teaching methods work and which don’t. Dr. Jeff Myers of Summit Ministries points to the work of a Yale psychology professor from the 1950s. Dr. William McGuire suggested that bad ideas behave like viruses. Specifically, the more exposure one has to bad ideas in a controlled setting, the less likely they are to fall for those ideas later. McGuire performed a series of experiments in which he tried to convince subjects of a lie, that brushing their teeth was actually bad for them. Those with no preparation for what they were about to hear were more easily convinced to stop brushing, and those who were warned against a specific bad argument they would hear were harder to deceive. No real surprise. More surprising were the groups that were easiest and the hardest to dupe. The group most vulnerable to falsehoods was not the one with zero preparation, but the one who’d merely had the truth reinforced. In other words, the subjects most easily deceived were told things like, “You know brushing your teeth is good for you, right? You’ve been taught this since you were little. Trust us.” When they heard arguments they’d never heard before, this group felt sheltered and even deceived. The least vulnerable group were those who had not only been warned against a bad argument they’d hear, they were also taught how to respond. And, they were warned they could face additional bad arguments, so they needed to be aware and vigilant. What does this experiment teach us? Well, for one thing, that the method many Christian parents and churches use to pass on the faith—reinforcement without taking seriously counter ideas—is doomed to fail. In fact, it can leave young people more vulnerable to lies. It also teaches us that we don’t have to give kids all the answers, but they do need to be aware and ready to think for themselves. This requires that we give them a framework, or a pattern, of responding to bad ideas thoughtfully and confidently. This is what the team at Summit Ministries has been doing with students for decades: immunizing them against bad ideas and preparing them for challenges to their faith. The results are measurable and impressive. An independent 2020 survey of Summit alumni showed that just 40% felt able to defend their faith against challenges before attending a student conference. After attending, that number skyrocketed to nearly 90%. Before Summit, only 44% claimed a strong commitment to Christianity. Afterward, 77% did. And, almost 97% of Summit alumni indicate they are currently attending a church that holds to the truth of the Bible. Chuck Colson called Summit Ministries “the gold standard” for training young adults in Christian worldview. I agree. I’ve personally witnessed and been part of the transformation that happened at Summit. Each 2-week student conference—held at Covenant College in Georgia and at the Summit headquarters in Manitou Springs, Colorado—shapes a robust, biblical worldview in young people, while also preparing them for divisive topics like abortion, doubt and deconstruction, evolution, gender identity, God’s existence, sexuality, and more. If you know a student who needs to attend a Summit conference this summer, get a $100 discount with offer code “BREAKPOINT22.” You can also save $200 when you register before March 31 for any in-person Summit Student Conference. Simply visit summit.org/breakpoint. The numbers speak for themselves. Passing on a Christian worldview to our kids requires much more than just telling them the truth. It requires us to help them love the truth, and gain spiritual immunity against infectious bad ideas.

The Metaverse and a Disembodied Church

February 17, 2022

Futurists and tech industry gurus have long promised a utopia where humans aren’t dependent on pesky biological or geographical realities. Behind yesterday’s cyberspace and today’s “Metaverse” is the same idea: In a brave new world of digital existence, humans can be freed from bodies, specific locations, and other physical limitations. Digital technology made it possible for churches to pivot and continue in the early, uncertain days of the pandemic. Many congregations have chosen to keep their live-streaming option on offer, in order to accommodate their older, more vulnerable, or physically distant constituents. Other churches have taken it a step or two further. Some have opted for an online-only congregation, abandoning a physical building and physical gatherings altogether. Others are starting “churches” in Facebook’s new Metaverse, where people, or their avatars, can “come” to church from anywhere in the world with other people, or their avatars, who join from anywhere in the world. D.J. Soto, a pastor at what is called VR Church in the Metaverse, recently claimed, “The future of the church is the metaverse… in the church of 2030, the main focus is going to be your metaverse campus.” On one hand, such innovation is just the latest chapter in a longer history. Churches have long employed new technologies and methods to reach the sick or infirmed, particularly in times of crisis, and keep them connected with the wider Church. Evangelicals, in particular, have a long tradition of using new technologies in the service of evangelism, including the printing press 500 years ago, the newspaper 300 years ago, the radio in the early 1900s, and the TV in the late 1900s. This commentary, BreakPoint, got its start on the radio. But new technology and communication methods must be evaluated on more than whether or not something new “works.” This new chapter is also about what the Church is. Decades ago, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” Put another way, the means used to tell a story will shape what is said. When it comes to Church, it can change the nature of what we kind of people we are. People aren’t just inviting the world into the Church through new technology, they’re moving the Church into the new realm of that technology. Such a move can have unexpected consequences. While there’s certainly cause for attempts to “reach people where they are,” what we reach them with is what we reach them to. We must make sure any effort to communicate the Gospel doesn’t reduce the Gospel to anything less than It is. Remember, Christ spoke of those who, in the Parable of the Sower, initially received the Gospel with joy, but, lacking root, turned aside when growing stopped being as convenient. But there’s also something else to consider. A disembodied Church assumes that a disembodied faith is possible. A Christianity lived only online encourages America’s already existing “choose your own adventure” understanding of religion. Christianity is about more than content. Rather, its content cannot truly be lived outside of the context of real people in the real world. As Tish Harrison Warren put it recently in the New York Times, “[B]odies, with all the risk, danger, limits, mortality and vulnerability that they bring, are part of our deepest humanity, not obstacles to be transcended through digitization.” In contrast, a cyberspace “church” can be something akin to 2013’s “Her,” where an imaginary relationship with an online persona becomes preferable to the often painful and inconvenient nature of tangible reality. As someone from that movie puts it, “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real,” a line that could describe what too many seek from the Bride of Christ. The faith of our fathers is not simply attending a performance, or even embracing a set of ideas about God or Jesus. A church without doctrine is a mere social club or an arbitrary special interest group, but a “church” that remains doctrinally correct but only connects online is a mere chat room. A disembodied online existence makes it too easy to hide who and what we really are from those God has called us to love and be loved by. The Christian life cannot be fully lived online. God has called us to this time and this place, to times and crises that are uncomfortable and to people whose issues and ailments are unpleasant. The world in which God is making all things new is filled with real people and real problems, and these won’t be mended in the illusive world of an online existence.