I am Jack’s Rejection of the Matrix

Ever since I’d seen both movies, I’ve thought Fight Club and The Matrix would make a great double feature. Not one to share with the kids, and not for light, passive entertainment. But for a thought-provoking evening? Perfect.

Besides both being late nineties classics you watch in college and think are deep, they’re both taking a swing at the same target. Fight Club and The Matrix are both, in their own way, critiques of the American social and economic system. During the Reagan and Clinton administrations, which served as the backdrop of the lives of most of the Generation Xers who saw them in theaters, this was neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism, summed up briefly by an economics amateur, is the ideology that favors free markets, privatization, and deregulation, with minimal government involvement in the economy generally. This is the world of economic freedom that allows corporations to flourish, and so provides an endless number of “socially conscious” movies with suit-wearing, cigar-smoking, filthy rich bad guys. It also provides them with a cage from which they can free their lead characters.

Take a look at The Matrix’s protagonist, as seen by Agent Smith.

Agent Smith: “It seems that you’ve been living two lives. One life, you’re Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a social security number, pay your taxes, and your… help your landlady carry out her garbage.”

In previous scenes, we watch Thomas A. Anderson living out this humdrum existence. He shows up to work late and is reprimanded by his boss, then distracted by the squeak of window washers dragging a squeegee across the glass. He sits in his cubicle and does his work. He is unsatisfied with life, just another office drone in a world of office drones.

But the mysterious hackers Morpheus and Trinity offer him an escape. Morpheus asks him to look at his world, to understand its true nature. He is caught in the Matrix.

 

Morpheus: “The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”

Neo/Thomas Anderson: “What truth?”

Morpheus: “That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage… born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”

 

When Morpheus breaks Thomas Anderson, alias Neo, out of the Matrix, he takes him to a place where he can explain what precisely the Matrix is. It seems human society was long ago conquered by a race of artificially intelligent robots, who have created a vast system in which they have trapped us. Why are we hooked into this thorough illusion, this deception pervading our entire life?

 

Morpheus: “The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 BTU’s of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need. There are fields – endless fields – where human beings are no longer born, we are grown. For the longest time I wouldn’t believe it, and then I saw the fields with my own eyes. Watched them liquefy the dead so they could be fed intravenously to the living.

“And standing there, facing the pure horrifying precision, I came to realize the obviousness of the truth. What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer generated dream world, built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this.”

morpheous-battery

 

In short, the system views us as a resource. We are batteries to be drained, crops to be harvested. Thomas Anderson is not special human being, he is not a beautiful and unique snowflake. He—like us—is a cog in a machine, a replaceable part in a vast, paper-pushing, money-generating enterprise. Well, electricity generating in the world of the story. In the world of neoliberalism, the world of corporations, the real individual is nothing more than Morpheus’s coppertop battery that keeps the small appliances running.

Realizing that the machines view us this way, that the Matrix was created to keep us docile as we are drained, the hope Morpheus offers is something of a messianic one.

Morpheus: “When the Matrix was first built, there was a man born inside who had the ability to change whatever he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit. It was he who freed the first of us, taught us the truth – As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free. After he died, the Oracle prophesied his return and his coming would hail the destruction of the Matrix, end the war, bring freedom to our people. That is why there are those who have spent our entire lives searching the Matrix looking for him.”

 

The way he will destroy the Matrix is never quite specified, though by the end of the movie there is some indication that perhaps the One is merely meant to wake everybody up, to make them reject the Matrix. Then, one assumes, we will be free.

And that is The Matrix’s philosophy of neoliberal society. It looks at the meaningless life of an office drone, and blames the machine. The solution it offers is simply to reject the machine, to reject the system. But then what? What replaces it?

The Matrix is pretty light on answers to that particular question. Perhaps it can be forgiven. After all, it is primarily an action movie. But that does weaken its critique. A freedom that isn’t going anywhere isn’t exactly inspiring. We’ve rejected the system, we know what we’re fighting against, but what exactly are we fighting for? Just whatever we want? Find your own meaning? What if I find meaning in being hooked back into the Matrix? After all, a lot of people seem comfortable there.

This is the option taken by the traitor, Cypher. He is sick of the fight, sick of the dystopian real world. He wants to eat steak, drink wine, be important, enjoy the good life back in the Matrix. So he cuts a deal with the machines, letting them have the resistance in exchange for letting him back in. It doesn’t work out well.

We are meant to reject that option, but on what basis? What is the better world Morpheus and Neo offer us? When we finally get to Zion in the sequels, all we get is a massive rave, and a little hanky panky. Couldn’t we have had that in the Matrix? Didn’t a lot of people? Work during the week, party on the weekend?

There’s an essential failure of imagination here. Many critics of neoliberalism’s economic order simultaneously embrace social liberalism, as if the two were unconnected. They sneer at the crass self-indulgence of consumerism, deride the meaninglessness of being a mere resource for a corporation. But ad agencies were never just selling designer handbags, they were buying and selling lives and meaning.

Social liberalism rejects all social constraints, with the result that there are no traditional identity markers to clutch onto. Who are you? You determine who you are. Your hobbies, your gender, your sexuality, your favorite causes, your favorite celebrities, your eclectic clothing style, your multicultural food palate and selection of world music—this is who you are. Let no one tell you what job you can and can’t have, let no antiquated vows hold you back from seeking a fulfilling relationship or abandoning an unfulfilling one, let no unplanned pregnancy slow down your career and dash your dreams. You are your own person.

Far from being inconsistent with a free market, this is the natural consequence of it. Traditional societies with their taboos and reluctance to try new things are not great places for advertising. If you want to sell stuff, you need to convince people that the only thing that matters is what they want, and then offer it to them. Teach them to follow their hearts, then tell them their hearts really need what you’re selling—and that may be sex, vodka, Chinese food, a good car, or the right movie collection. Whatever floats your boat.

In the world of social liberalism, all the things that were once part of traditional value structures which transcended the individual have now become a form of both self-indulgence and self-marketing. Which sexuality most appeals to me? What movie genre makes me happiest? What clothing style really expresses who I am? Social liberalism is not the antithesis of economic liberalism, it is its natural bedfellow. Liberated markets need liberated individuals.

Fight Club realizes this to a greater degree than The Matrix. When the movie begins, the problem for the nameless protagonist—let’s call him Jack—is not that he is being actively deceived by an oppressive system. To be sure, the corporations are not innocent in this, but the real problem is Jack. Jack defines himself by what he owns. He has an addiction to Ikea, a need for the right coffee table, the right lamps, the right treadmill. He defines himself by it.

Early in the movie, his apartment explodes. He lives with no one. He has no real friends, no one lost or hurt in this tragedy. What he has lost are his possessions—a fridge full of condiments with no food. But, as he states later in the movie, those weren’t just things, that was his life. He is defined by what he buys. His new friend, Tyler Durden, questions this.

 

Tyler Durden: “Do you know what a duvet is?”

Jack: “It’s a comforter…”

Tyler Durden: “It’s a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?”

Jack: “Consumers?”

Tyler Durden: “Right. We are consumers. We’re the by-products of a lifestyle obsession.”

 

Fight Club does not offer a vague messianic prophecy. It offers an active solution. Reject the unnecessary. Reject your possessions. Then reject your desire for pleasure. Embrace pain. Reject your dignity. Suffer at night, and be despised by your coworkers by day. Reject your respect for society, and reject society itself. Fight Club rejects social liberalism as much as it does the corporate world of economic liberalism. It does not offer pleasure or freedom. It offers rocks bottom, the rejection of all that society calls good, the embracing of one’s mortality.

Tyler Durden: “Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

This is the mantra with which Tyler Durden blasts the quasi-fascist movement that springs up around him. They are all going to die, their life has no meaning, and they might as well take down this corrupt society with them. It told them they were valuable, but it treated them like they were worthless. Like a faceless resource.

Tyler Durden: “Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

Don’t tell the small child confused about their gender, the growing adult uncertain about their sexuality, that they can be whatever they want to be. Don’t tell the little girl that she can grow up to be president. Don’t preach a gospel of racial harmony to the oppressed. Don’t tell the poor they can rise to the top. Don’t even tell the vast cast of comfortable white guys with jobs that they can obtain any sort of dignity. All these things are just lies that keep us docile as we waste our lives chasing what the ad men tell us is worth chasing.

Fight Club recognizes this, understands that this message of positivity and individual self-creations exists solely to make us consumers. The me-centric society is an ad-centric society is a corporation-centric society. We exist to work for the companies, and to buy from the companies. And beneath that, we are rotting organic matter. Don’t buy any Disney-style platitudes. Don’t delude yourself. This is the harsh reality.

The Matrix rejects the machine, but Fight Club knows the machines were not alone. We were complicit. We bought their lies, we indulged ourselves, we have become the willing slaves of a system that doesn’t value us. Tyler Durden calls us to take responsibility for that, and he would not only have us enlightened, he would have us react.

Where The Matrix offers no real plan of action, and no final vision, Fight Club at least offers the first. Durden transforms the fight clubs into Project Mayhem, a terrorist organization not too far in goal from a more militaristic Anonymous. It aims first to use guerilla tactics to expose the meaninglessness of life in the corporate-dominated system, and then blow up the credit card companies, resetting all our balances to zero. Reboot that system and cause chaos.

The movie does not want you to like this plan. It is clearly violent, clearly bad, and clearly taking things too far. Sort of. It’s hard to separate Jack’s rejection of Project Mayhem from all the other inhibitions he’s slowly been shedding as he rejects consumerist society. Tyler Durden, as played by Brad Pitt, is simply more charismatic than the wishy washy Ed Norton, and his case is more convincing. The rejection of the terroristic project is clear, but rings hollow in the larger context.

Tyler’s ultimate vision, beyond the plan, is dwelt on hardly more than Zion, but the glimpse we get is both interesting and revealing.

Tyler Durden: “In the world I see – you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”

 

This is a radically primitive world, and a harsh one. Hunter-gatherer societies are not for the weak. They do not provide the safety and comforts of civilization that we are used too. They clearly also exclude much of what we consider to be the signs of our own greatness—great towers, great highways, a million meal choices. But this is entirely consistent with the values Fight Club has displayed so far. We are decaying organic matter, and anything else is a lie told to sell us something. So live life radically free from any system, live it on the edge, live it while you can. Don’t let anyone stop you.

If you value individual freedom, Fight Club’s is perhaps the more consistent conclusion. But the truth is, few of us value individual freedom that much. We don’t want to reject society altogether, we just don’t want to be batteries plugged into the Matrix, consumers leading meaningless lives.

It’s probably no coincidence that twenty years after the rash of anti-consumerist movies in the 90’s, including these two, both major parties are reeling from insurgencies in their own ranks. Bernie Sanders wants a system that isn’t afraid to hurt corporations in order to give individuals dignity. He’s an open socialist, because he cares about people more than companies. Trump doesn’t mind hurting corporations either, being open to protectionist policies that put American jobs ahead of companies that profit from an international neoliberal system. He also rejects the multiculturalism that reduces the values by which we define ourselves as a community to just one more option on a cultural free market. Hence the accusations of racism.

Both insurgencies, in their own ways, reject the neoliberalism of the past several decades. The right used to push for economic liberalism, and the left for social liberalism. Now we are seeing a right that doesn’t care about the former, and a left that, while it has not rejected the latter, may not prioritize it so much as college tuition and a true living wage. The country is not satisfied with the Matrix it has been living in, and both party establishments are suffering as a result.

But where does this leave us? What’s next? What does society look like, if not yin-yang coffee tables and a job at a large software company? What does the good life look like, if not what the advertisers tell us, if not what we see on TV, if not what the corrupt politicians ask of us? How exactly do we reject self-indulgent freedom—whether economic or social—for some sort of social cohesion? What are our new values?

Many critiques of neoliberalism reject religion, treating it as a means of social control. The Matrix certainly does—going to church is one of the ways you experience the Matrix. In Fight Club, the only clergyman is a frail looking, overly polite little pipsqueak provoked by a member of one of the fight clubs. He is weak compared to this real man, and ultimately abandons the social norms of nonviolence to attack the him, after being contemptuously sprayed with a hose. He is, perhaps, a hypocrite, or at least inconsistent with what we can assume are his principles.

But what if this picture is wrong? What if the reason we’re in this bind is that we have rejected a truly religious world, and look to a merely material world to give us meaning? We tell ourselves that there is nothing beyond the physical world, that we are no more than a complicated bit of chemistry. There is no life beyond this, no reality more lasting than the pain or pleasure our bodies feel right now. And after that, there is nothing. Is it any wonder we want to indulge ourselves while we’re still here?

I’m not suggesting a world of self-interested monsters, only a world of reasonable people. Why trouble yourself with antiquated religious taboos about sexuality, abortion, and respect for elders when it’s all going to rot anyways? Why make someone feel guilty for doing what we’re all doing—just trying to get through the day? Life is hard enough without being threatened with hellfire.

But again, what if that materialistic outlook is not true? What if the cosmos really is the produce of an entity that, though he may be far more than a “person” as we would understand it, is certainly not less? What if he not only created us, but is—contra Tyler Durden—actually interested in us?

People who reject fundamentalist Christianity often make the mistake of thinking that this idea is comforting, but the truth is often quite the opposite. As I’ve already indicated, it’s not for nothing that social liberals are easily annoyed by religious conservatives. Religious conservatives believe that God is interested in us, including being interested that we not do certain things. If there are objective, transcendent values, the kind a truly supernatural entity can give, that means that we can be wrong. Who we sleep with and how we spend our time is suddenly somebody else’s business, and that’s uncomfortable.

This cuts right against our sense of freedom. How dare someone call me a sinner, how dare someone judge me. Isn’t this a free country? Don’t I get to do what I want with my own money, with my own time, with my own body? This religion which rejects the kind of freedom at the base of neoliberalism, and the resultant dehumanization of consumers and employees, also rejects the basis of social liberalism.

Rejecting economic liberalism is one thing—most of us do not benefit much from it. But social liberalism is something that daily allows us to indulge ourselves. The average joe profits from the ability to buy anything, watch anything, drink anything, and sleep with anyone in a way he does not benefit from the profit margins seen by the big wigs in corporate. A morally judgmental Christianity is not an attractive alternative to the kind of consumerism from which he benefits.

But perhaps that is because those who reject the consumerist, neoliberal society on one level are themselves a product of it. We have found an enemy, but the enemy is us. We are still trapped in the service of our own desires, and we need a system that frees us to do that, that subsidizes our self-indulgence.

In another movie—Doctor Strange—the titular character is having a conversation with the Ancient One, who is in a particularly conversant mood. As she contemplates both death and the mysteries of life, she gives Strange some final advice, something to help him along his path to enlightenment and true self-knowledge.

The Ancient One: “Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all.”

Dr. Stephen Strange: “Which is?”

The Ancient One: “It’s not about you.”

Sex and Gender, Extremes and Perversions

My brother is currently writing his senior thesis on biblical masculinity. This has proven a great excuse to think about a biblical understanding of gender generally, as if I really needed one. Homosexuality and transgenderism are the hot topics of the day, and even before that, American society has always had more than one model of masculinity and femininity in the running. And no wonder–our God-given sexual identity cuts to the heart of who we are individually, touching on every other aspect of our lives, often in the most surprising of ways. It’s a very important, very personal issue, one that bears a lot of thinking about and a lot of discussion.

One of the interesting distinctions that has come about in the wake of the LGBT movement is that between sex and gender. At one point, these two words were considered interchangeable, and for many people they still are. But each has acquired a more specialized definition: sex refers to one’s biology, and gender refers to one’s behavior. Some people maintain that the two are independent of one another, that one’s gender is either a choice, or determined by something other than the raw physical facts. “I’m really a woman,” says man with functioning man parts. One’s anatomy, say some, should not determine what bathroom one uses any more than one’s skin color should.

Objections to this come from a variety of places, and the alternatives offered do not always agree with one another. If males must be masculine, and females must be feminine, how does this work? What does masculinity and femininity look like? Where does it come from?

These are difficult questions to answer, and they’re not made any easier by the postmodernist’s favorite problem: diversity of cultural norms. Masculinity in Hong Kong, or in Tokyo, does not look exactly like masculinity among the San people, or in Beverly Hills, or rural Appalachia. A backwoods Pentecostal from Deep East Texas and a respectable Nigerian woman from Lagos may both think they are feminine, but may not recognize it in each other, or in that girl from Portland.

Those who assert that gendered behavior is more than a cultural reality, that it is tied to one’s biological sex, and that there is a moral component to this—a group among which I count myself—have various solutions to this conundrum. Some ignore or undersell the cultural diversity. Some just shrug it off as the effects of sin on societies the world over, content in the assumption that their understanding of how men and women should behave is the transcendent norm. Others assert that there are certain general trends in behavior, and certain unhealthy deviations, but that it really is difficult to determine precisely what these are. How is one to disentangle healthy human nature from its cultural expressions? Is such a thing even possible?

That project is difficult one, involving a lot of study. It’s easy for Christians to point to the Bible as a shortcut, the divine revelation which lays out right and wrong for us. In one sense, this is very true, but that doesn’t make it simple. Whether it’s a blue-jeans wearing redneck who just got back from work, or a respectable office worker in his suit who just came back to his 2.5 kids and wife in the burbs, we carry a lot of cultural baggage to our reading of the Bible. Half the population is male, and the other half is female, and we’ve spent our entire lives around them. We already have ideas about masculinity and femininity, and which Biblical passages stand out to us as relevant, and which interpretations of them make sense, will be heavily colored by that experience.

There is an added layer of complication when we begin citing accounts of facts as divine commands. Some evangelicals have a bad habit of interpreting bible stories as God’s examples for how we ought to live our lives, without stopping to ask whether they are intended to be interpreted that way. This can get very hairy, and very entertaining, as people try to hash out the truly biblical baptismal practice where no explicit command is given. There are also some downright ridiculous arguments for every conceivable mode of church governance based on vaguely worded statements of what New Testament churches did. None of these have the clarity and power of the Ten Commandments, a straightforward delivery of divine law, or of some of the commands of Jesus in the Gospels. We should keep this in mind when we address any topic, gender and sexuality included.

Some of my favorite discussions of masculinity and femininity come from people who take a look at the psychological and social impact of biology. How does the ability to get pregnant, having a body crafted to nurture new life, and having regular biological reminders of the fact, effect how women understand themselves? How does the disconnect between male experience of sexuality and male experience of reproduction effect how men view themselves? And how do each of these sets of facts impact how one sex/gender looks at the other?

I think this line of questioning is extraordinarily helpful. Chasing down that rabbit trail quickly reveals explanations for general trends in how men and women conduct themselves across cultures, and also sheds some light on the places where those cultures differ, and why. It also offers helpful suggestions as to why we are seeing this sudden trend of acceptance of LGBT culture in America. Some of the things that have long accompanied being a man or woman in America are being eroded by modern medical technology, among other things.

But as I was considering this the other day, another important distinction struck me. If one attaches moral implications to biological realities—a kind of natural law thinking—then a whole new set of questions come up. The fact is, technology does loosen the hold of biology on men and women. Some of this may be negative, but some is assuredly positive. The same hormone replacement therapy used by transgender individuals to more resemble the sex they identify as, is also used by people whose natural bodily functions, through disease, accident, or birth defect, have ceased. And this number is not as small as might be convenient for those of us with Luddite tendencies. Modern medical science has a real impact on gender and sexuality, and not all of it is what a Christian could, at face value, call bad.

Those grey areas, the twilight zone of these discussions, are not the only place that natural law arguments for gender norms encounter rough sailing. Say a young man growing up in the rural South went to an evangelical church every Sunday, attended a Christian school, listened incessantly to Focus on the Family, and filled his head with country music lyrics. Take another young man and raise him on Canon Press books, let him soak up courtship culture, expose him to John Piper and Mark Driscoll, and let him attend an ACCS school in the Northwest. In the grand scheme of world cultures, the two are not far apart, but ask them to point out feminism, or what headship means, and you’ll get answers that look nothing alike.

Obviously, this is an experiment I have conducted the entertaining way. Both of these individuals might agree that God has expectations regarding gender, might tie these expectations back to biological realities, and might generally agree that American culture is currently nuts on the issue. But that northwestern individual makes me very uncomfortable with his views on a woman’s place. I expect, based on experience and (I think) biblical precedent that a woman is fully capable of doing, and doing well, lots of things which that guy would say she should not do based on the fact that she is a woman. God has made men one way, and women another, and therefore women should not infringe upon masculine territory. His view of gender roles is far more ironclad than my own, in a very significant way, despite all the similarities we might have in common.

Should women initiate a relationship? Should she give a potential mate who is taking too long to pop the question a subtle hint, or leave such things to her father? Does her father have authority over her once she is old enough to provide for herself? Should a woman ever go out and provide for herself? Once married, should she take a job outside the home? Does the type of job matter? Should women be in the military at all, even in supporting roles? Is it acceptable or even desirable for a woman to be more intellectual, or even wiser than her husband? Should wives be willing to tell their husband they are wrong? How far is obedience commanded? Should marriage look more like a partnership, or like the relationship between a parent and a particularly competent child?

If you are not a woman reading this, imagine you are a woman reading this. See? This is where feminism comes from—two college guys sitting around debating the place of women. Maybe women should have a say in all this. But wait, isn’t this an issue of biblical interpretation? Are women allowed to talk about this stuff? I Timothy 2? See, it gets hairy quickly. Strong feelings are had.

At any rate, in my contemplation of the issue, and my consideration of past discussions, I realized the need for a crucial distinction. There is a big difference between saying someone is doing something which nature does not ordinarily allow them to do, and saying they are doing something which contradicts, twists, or denies their nature. Most men don’t run all that fast, yet Usain Bolt exists. Ordinary people can’t solve a Rubik’s cube in under sixty second, blindfolded. Yet these people exist, and I would hesitate to castigate them for it.

This distinction between acting contrary to one’s nature and being on the extreme end of it is an important one. One might argue from biology or from general observation of humans at work that some activities are far more normal for men and others for women. Yet I hesitate to say that this means women should not participate in activities ordinarily dominated by men, if they have the capability and the inclination.

That semi-imaginary northwesterner and I might both be on the conservative end of these issues, but, to cite a biblical example, he finds the prophetess Deborah a real inconvenience. Women are not supposed to be prophets. How can he explain this away? Maybe no men were doing their job at the time, so a woman had to? He likewise frowns disapprovingly at the apocryphal tale of Judith. I, on the other hand, think it’s pretty cool. Is it because I’m a sellout to radical egalitarianism? No, I just maintain a distinction he does not. Deborah and Judith may have been unusual, but they were not a perversion of femininity.

This places me in a position I am very comfortable with. I do not necessarily have as many pat answers as the self-proclaimed patriarchal crowd to the one side or the people who make gender entirely a social construct on the other. Their systems are much tighter than mine. But I can, on the one hand, embrace masculinity and femininity as beautiful things, as positive virtues, and, on the other hand, be perfectly content with the fact that a woman might be a much better scholar than me, a better leader, or play a much meaner game of volleyball. Especially the volleyball thing. I hate volleyball. You go girl, just leave me out of it.

This is certainly a perspective that includes serious expectations and even hard and fast rules, but it’s also a far more relaxed. Maintain this distinction, and you can take the people as they come, giving a little consideration to the fact that they are God’s servant, not yours, and there may be more than one way to be masculine or feminine, and there may be more going on than what you see at first blush. It allows you to—dare I say it—accept the fact of your own ignorance. And it’s charitable. I like that. It’s nice.

Also, what madman would want to get rid of Judith? Judith is freaking awesome.

On Reacting to Culture Warriors

A  number of years ago I was confronted with a strain of conservative Christianity that was very free in its use of insults, ridicule, and slander towards people on the other end of the “culture war” as they understood it. This often included other Bible-believing Christians, from a great range of theological persuasions, and across the social, cultural, and political spectrum. As someone from a fairly broad evangelical background, I found this extremely frustrating. As someone belonging to the very “axis of treacle” these folks spent a great deal of their time targeting, I was very, very angry.

I did not have to run in those circles long before I discovered others frustrated with the sort of rhetoric this crowd used. In the face of the sort of language I am not allowed—and not inclined—to repeat in front of my students, these other frustrated people spoke out. Sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly. They defended their brothers in Christ as brothers in Christ, but they also defended those outside the faith as human beings made in the image of God and therefore worthy of some measure of respect. This was good.

Over the years I saw these folks defend liberals. (Are they not rational human beings? Why must we assume the worst of them?) I saw them defend Muslims. (People lie about us, say we’re bloodthirsty theocrats bent on taking over the world. Why must it be any more true of them?) I saw them defend homosexuals. (Sure, it’s a sin, but so is slander, so is hating your brother, so are a thousand other things people on the right are glad to overlook.) I saw them defend illegal immigrants in the face of what certainly seemed to be racism. (Didn’t we come here looking for a better life, too?) The years rolled on, and I saw them stand up and say “Black Lives Matter.” (How can you spend all this time talking about big government and the militarization of police and not question a system that guns down a child holding a toy?) And, in their way, these things were very good.

These people raised their voices against a Christianity that slandered God’s children. They raised their voices against people who dehumanized their opposition, who turned them into orcs in need of slaying rather than the lost in need of saving. They raised their voices against a politics that would not hear opposing views. They raised their voices in the name of fair-mindedness, in the name of love and mercy, in the name of justice in rhetoric.

These people stood against a view of culture war that looked for enemies in every shadow. Christ teaches that if we take up His cross, people will persecute us for it. But these people saw Christians behaving in an un-Christlike manner while claiming the name of Jesus. They saw people picking fights and stirring up trouble, not by preaching Christ, but by a deliberate, belligerent, combative attitude towards anyone that moved. They opposed that, and a siege mentality that likens all opposition to persecution, all trials to martyrdom.

Insofar as these people stood against that form of rhetoric, and that form of culture war, I could stand with them. And if their politics changed over the years, so be it. How could it not? How can you be shown a way of life filled with slander, with bullying, and with an uncritical attitude towards one’s own faults, and not want something better? I might not agree with the politics these folks adopted, but so what? We were still brothers.

To those brothers, and sisters, I say this.

You stood for justice, you stood for mercy, and that is commendable. I have seen that and applauded it, not always loudly, and not always in as unqualified a manner as it may have deserved in context. But I applaud it. Whatever else can be said, you have won my respect.

But now I know your principles. I know where you stand. I know you stand against baseless insult, and against unfounded slander. I know you stand against a siege mentality, against the sort of knee-jerk tribalism that turns everyone who disagrees with you into an enemy that must be battled. I know you are against dehumanizing the opposition, whoever the opposition is. I know where you stand, because I have seen you stand there again and again.

But I have seen you say other things. Not in the privacy of your own home, or in emails, or texts. Not between a few close friends, but openly. On Twitter. On Facebook. On WordPress. On Tumblr.

I have seen you slander, mock, and deride conservatives. I have seen you ascribe to them the worst possible motives, and give them no hearing, no benefit of the doubt. I have seen you call Republicans morons. I have seen you turn a Northwesterner’s slander of all feminists as “small-breasted biddies” into your own slander of “Southern biddies.” I have seen you call all people who own guns toothless, backwards hillbillies, and anyone who votes Republican a racist asshole. I have seen you tear evangelicals a new one time and again, with no distinctions among them, none of the nuance you would afford any other group. I have seen you say horrible things about Bible-believing, honest, and sincere Christians that I would not repeat. You have branded all American Christians (by what grounds do you exclude yourself?) with perverting the Gospel, of being vile, rank hypocrites.

Now, I know where this comes from. I have seen at least some of the sources of your anger, and how they treat you and those you love. And I have seen why, now, in your eyes, all those gun-toting Cruz voters are just nameless, faceless, worthless SOB’s.

But to me, those conservatives do have worth. They are real people. They have names and faces.

They taught me to ride a bike and fold a paper airplane. They taught me to fish, to drive, how to do long division, and how to fix a sandwich. They taught me to respect a man, regardless of his background, and to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. I have seen Bush voters, out of their abundance, give much, taking in orphans whose “parents” I knew, as well as orphans who truly had no parents. I have seen gun-toting rednecks, out of their poverty, give everything they had, give what they did not have, to help widows and single mothers provide for children whose fathers had abandoned them. They have been that single mother, working themselves into the ground for children they love. They have been young families, sacrificing a life they had dreamed of to provide their kids with an education they never had a chance to get themselves. I have seen the love and tenderness of Jesus in the hearts, in the mouths, in the actions of the people you slander.

These are the people who taught me to love Jesus, not as a symbol in the culture war, but as a merciful Savior and Lord. These are the people who taught me to seek his will and keep his word, not to blindly follow slick-haired preachers. I do not know who taught you what marriage looks like, who taught you the roles of men and women. We both agree these things are more complicated than Leave it to Beaver might have us to think, but I began learning it in a hospital in Fort Ord, when they laid me in the arms of a woman with a sharpshooter medal pinned to her BDU’s, and in the arms of the man secure enough to love her. Conservatives? You bet they are. Godly people? Absolutely.

When you slander conservative Christians, these are the faces I see. When I go to work on Monday, and look into the eyes of my students, many of them still young and wild with love of God’s glorious creation, it is their eyes I see as you curse their fathers and mothers. When I spend the weekend marveling with my friend over the glories of the Gospel, the wonderful diversity of cultures God has given us, or the excellence of Mexican food, it is his face I see as you cry “toothless hillbilly.”

I do not judge you by my standards. What goes on in your heart is between you and the Master of us both. But I have seen the vilest hypocrisy, the rankest violation of your own principles, not in secret, away from the world, not in private conversations between us two, but out on social media, out on the internet, loudly and vocally, with the aim to wound, to shame, to denigrate. The sort of behavior you cry out against when it is directed at minorities, at people of leftist political persuasions, at people of other faiths, at homosexuals, at a thousand others, that is the sort of behavior you freely engage in towards God’s children, towards your own brothers, in the public forum.

You say you hate careless slander, but do you slander carelessly? You claim to hate it when people assume the worst of those who disagree with them, but what do you assume? You tell the world you wish people would lay off the siege mentality and consider that people who have other positions might be rational human beings with their own lives to live outside politics. Are those Neanderthals you rail against exempt from that judgment of charity? You say you want to end the culture war, but you have not left it behind. You’ve merely changed the direction your guns are pointing in.

Look at the people who angered you, who did wrong to those you loved and gave you reason to speak out against them. They believe they are doing the right thing when they engage in this behavior. You can hear their justification from their own mouths. But you say you have seen the error in that way of life, you say you have turned against it. So when you engage in that behavior, loudly and in public, are you not twice as bad, because you are condemned not by others’ standards, but by your own? Do you not commit the same sins, but with your eyes open?

Again, it is not my business what goes on in your heart. That is between you and God. But what comes out of your mouth, what you spread freely over the internet, that slander with which you attack those I love, and those you claim deserve dignity and respect, that is my business.

I have tried to be even-handed on Twitter and Facebook. Compare my attitude with where I have come from, and you will see that this is true. And in part, it was you that taught me to think before I speak, to hold my tongue far longer and far more often than I wish. I go far out of my way to avoid being unfair to those on my left, because of your example. Because I agree on those principles.

But those principles actually matter. If you can call out conservatives on it, and do so honestly, then you should be willing to call yourself out on it. If you set up a standard for people to follow, you yourself ought to follow it. Do not lament the lack of love you have seen on the part of some conservatives, and then display that same lack of love yourself. If a particular brand of conservative ought to be taught to accept all manner of other Christians as their brothers, then you also ought to accept conservative Christians as brothers. To do anything less is shameful on your part, and brings disgrace to the Body you claim to love and the principles you claim to hold.

Now, having said all this, let me say two things further. First, while this behavior is widespread among my acquaintances who are critical of this kind of culture war, it is by no means universal. And not all who have participated in it do so with the same bile and the same gusto. To the disillusioned, the angry and excluded, and the pseudo-hipsters whom I love and who have not done this, I do not intend this for you. And even if it does describe you completely, please know that I still love you and count you my brothers and sisters. I speak not because I hate one side of a war and identify with the other. I speak because I identify with the Body of Christ and I am as tired as you are of seeing warfare, backbiting, and unnecessary division tear it apart.

My second postscript is to a certain strain of conservative who might be tempted to see this as a declaration of loyalty to your cultural and political mission. Resist the temptation. I oppose the sort of culture war mentioned above every bit as much in conservative Christians as I do in hipster, leftist, and moderate Christians. I have spoken critically of that before, though perhaps not as vocally as I might have, and I maintain that critical stance now. I stand with Christ and with the Jerusalem that is above, not with conservatism as such, or those who wage war on its behalf.

Finally, let me end on this note. I have been guilty of the sins mentioned above, and I have been guilty of blindness. I have been guilty of using strong words and speaking rashly. And I have been guilty of more than a few things this post is not meant to cover. I am a sinner in need of Christ. Not “I was a sinner in need of Christ.” I am a sinner in need of Christ. If anything I have said here is unjust or beneath his standards, I apologize. If anything I have said distresses you in ways that it should not, I also apologize, and seek your forgiveness. We all need to take a good look in the mirror, and we all need Jesus. I do not exclude myself from that.

In Him,

David H.

The Southern Dilemma, Part One

This is the first in a number of posts on Southern identity. The following exploration of the issue was inspired by a series of three linked articles whose content will largely structure the upcoming posts. They can be found here, here, and here.

Recently Dr. Peter Leithart posted a quote on his blog over at First Things. The originator of the quote compares Ireland’s relationship to England as a literary center with that of the South’s relationship to the remainder of the United States. He offers an interesting explanation for our significant literary output, grounding greater creativity in the experience of defeat.

“The South escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking. The North puffed confidently into the future, Panglossian about progress, always bound to win. But the South had lost. It knew there was an America that could be defeated. That made it capable of facing tragedy, as many in America were not.”

This is an interesting point, and strikes me as true. There is depth to having known defeat, a certain humility when confronted with life that I believe allows a deeper and more poignant experience of the world. But there are greater consequences to such an experience than increased creative potential.

The problem with American history is that it is very short. It has been said that a very old man today could have, as a child, sat in the lap of another old man who in turn had known people alive at the time of the War for Independence. Much has happened in the past two hundred and fifty years, but we are still very much settling into our place in history. We have not been conquered and re-conquered, we have not experienced centuries of changing regimes and lifestyles. The first war the whole United States really lost was Vietnam.

So when the South includes in its narrative a story of defeat, that means a great deal. We are still Americans, with a strong desire for progress and optimism. We cannot fathom the concept of a narrative with rises and falls, defeats and victories, different struggles in different contexts. Change is foreign. Our narrative has only gone so far, and our imagination cannot go much farther.

That defeat, then, defines us. It has the cold air of finality about it, and that terrifies the Southern psyche. No man can maintain a narrative of final defeat. If his worldview has no room for victory or potential happiness, then either he will die or he will find a new worldview.

In the South, that is largely what has happened. In our short-sightedness we think Appomattox meant not just the end of Confederate efforts in the Civil War, but the end of the South as a culture. This drives some to seek out a new culture, whether a Yankeefied liberalism or some broader form of Americanism. Others do not want to abandon their culture so quickly, and instead attempt to change the narrative. The South must rise again, or at the very least be vindicated and accepted in the larger American context. In some sense, our defeat must be undone.

This dilemma largely defines the South as it is now, and if not addressed, will lead to our death as a culture. And it is a problem not for those who are willing to forget the South, but for those who love it and want to see it prosper. We are the ones who have stop living in the past, and address our culture as it stands now. We have to adapt to a new context and become forward-thinking while still affirming our own heritage and way of life.

I do believe that the South has done this on occasion, but almost by accident. We are constantly going back to that same war, rehashing the same old issues, and clinging to that bitter defeat. If we are to maintain an upbeat and forward-thinking culture, we cannot continue to do that. We must deliberately and firmly make a lasting change to our understanding of our own narrative. But that is a topic for a later post.

Salvation and Ornery Conservatives

Have you ever wondered why devout evangelicals get up in arms about stuff like getting up in arms? Or raising their children the way they want to? Or not letting the government handle their money? I mean, we tend to be pretty darn touchy about our individual liberties. Hence the Tea Party movement. Have you ever wondered why that is?

Well, I’ve got a theory.* it could be personal salvation. We derive our ultimate meaning in life from our relationship to God. And that relationship is, ultimately, individual. Sure, you can read the Bible or listen to the way we talk and know we do actually believe that groups of people get blessed or cursed and whatnot. But at the end of the day, you die as an individual, you go before God’s throne as an individual, and you are saved solely based on your individual relationship with him.

Now think about that for a minute. Ultimate meaning is derived from an individual’s relationship to God. This means you are primarily responsible for your actions as an individual. You–individually–have been given commands, and you–individually–must obey them. Corporate obedience, while important, is secondary.

Translate that to political terms. You have individual responsibilities, therefore you have the rights to whatever you are responsible for as an individual. Individual liberties take precedence over participation in society. Now, I’m not saying every devout evangelical has worked this out and uses it to justify their political views. What I am saying is that since we believe we are personally responsible for most of our choices, seeing people take away our power to choose regarding those things really rankles us.

Flip this around. A lot of non-Christians in America today, especially those who simply don’t identify with any religion, derive meaning from the human experience. What is important in life is how we interact with others. If there is a way of transcending ourselves and achieving greater meaning, it is in being to good to humanity in general.

Put that in a political context. If greater meaning comes through our participation in the greater collective, you are going to have less of a problem trusting society, or its hired hands, with things like self defense, raising children, or helping the poor. Rather than taking away our God-given rights/responsibilities, that sort of thing is a way of transcending ourselves and participating in something larger and more important.

Often these issues get dealt with by both sides throwing insults around and calling each other names. Liberals might not have any sense of personal responsibility, or conservatives must just be greedy and antisocial. Because if someone disagrees with you, they must be either evil or stupid. Can’t you feel the love? The empathy? The human kindness? The neighborliness? Me neither.

So I’m suggesting that while we continue having these discussions, we keep in mind the fact that our political differences may be powered mostly by differing views of the world. That is a major underlying issue, and realizing that can help us come to more reasonable compromises, if such a compromise is possible. At the very least, it will help us understand one another.

*No, it couldn’t be bunnies.

POST SCRIPTUM:

I do want to qualify this real quick. We Christians, even us hardcore evangelicals, do think in terms of loving one’s neighbor and in being part of a community. But because that is not the ultimate thing from which we derive meaning, the way in which we do is going to be a bit different than the way a secular humanist would. And keep in mind that we will have the same misunderstanding when you place those things above individual responsibilities, since that would be counter-intuitive to us.

A Message from the Black Regiment

I had the privilege this Sunday of hearing Pastor Douglas Wilson preach a sermon that badly needs to be heard by more Christians in our country. It’s sure to be highly controversial, and with good reason–it soundly condemns Obamacare as a claim by the federal government in direct opposition to the claims of Christ. In the process, he makes a lot of good points, and highlights this as a key moment for Christians to stand in defense of Gospel. I highly recommend it.

A Sermon to the Governor and Legislature of Idaho

Whedon, Nolan, House, and Hope for the World

This past year or so I’ve been up to my neck in Joss Whedon. Firefly, Buffy, Angel, Avengers, references to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Must be the company I keep. After a while, you start to notice patterns in a guy’s work, start to work out what he believes about the world.

Hanging out with the same folks that got me into Whedon, I’ve also watched a lot of Christopher Nolan. He is a far better writer and director, with films like Inception, the Batman Trilogy, Memento, and the Prestige under his belt. I began to notice as well that while he takes himself far more seriously than Whedon, they hold certain things in common.

By now it’s obvious that I’m going somewhere with this, and I’ll just show you my hand. When I watched the House series finally, the theme clicked into place across that series and both bodies of work. All of them take a certain view of death, the meaning of life, and how we are to live in response to it.

House has always struggled with death, firmly believing that there is nothing after. Life, he believes, is meaningless and ends in meaninglessness. We’re just, as the now aging adage attests, ugly bags of mostly water. In the final episode this is brought into startling clarity. But his response is interesting: he keeps on living. In every episode, from the first to the very last, we are told never to give up. Objectively, life may have no purpose, but it’s still worth living, still worth giving a little bit of our own purpose.

To keep it short, we’ll stick with Whedon’s Buffyverse. In both Buffy and in Angel we are told, pretty explicitly, that this world is hell. Buffy knows that in contrast with the peace of death, life is not worth living. Angel has seen that there’s a little bit of hell in every person, some amount of darkness that they infect the world with. We’re trapped in a world of pain and darkness. But Whedon is one step above House, and a bit more theatrical. He insists not merely on keeping on living, but on fighting the evil, again and again, with every apocalypse, even if there is no final victory. And he expects his heroes, and heroines, to do so in epic style.

Christopher Nolan, sticking to film, is much more cinematic, and therefore requires a slightly different form of analysis. But take a while and you’ll notice the same thing. The Joker, in Dark Knight, is right that everyone has some amount of evil in them. Yes, a hardened criminal may find it in himself to throw a detonator overboard, but that won’t stop Gotham’s great hope from going evil, or the whole city from blaming Batman. In Inception and Memento, the truth doesn’t matter as much as the feeling. The world is hell, keep on moving, do the best you can.

There are differences, of course. Nolan is actually a bit more despairing, and he’s honestly more concerned with truth and subjectivity than he is with the meaning of life. House is just as much about whether people can change as whether this world is hell. Whedon doesn’t always care much about the literal truth of materialism and life after death as he does about despair, heroism, and redemption. But they all do have the common theme that the world ought to make us despair, but we can’t just give up.

As a Christian this is both frustrating and heartening. I’ll start with the heartening part. Despite the utter meaninglessness of the universes these men create, they refuse to live like it has no meaning. They are determined to struggle on, even half-heartedly, because they recognize that there is something good in this world worth fighting for. There is a reason to live, even if they don’t know what it is.

But it’s frustrating, because they never come to an answer. They tell us to fight, but their reasons are vague and empty. It’s all passion, emotion, and attachment to our dreams, with no concrete answers. This is because if they gave those concrete answers, if they were consistent, Firefly would end in a bitter Mal dying alone in despair somewhere in deep space. If Nolan was consistent, there would be no third Batman. If House was consistent, he would have overdosed on pain killers long ago.

You can see this tension in the way their heroes live. In the Buffyverse, nine out of ten times there is a romance, it will end in death or betrayal. And if it ends peacefully, the death and betrayal comes later. In House, every character careens from cold, cruel self-interest that cuts their neighbors, to a tough sort of love because if they have no friends, what is left to live for? And Nolan’s world is just dark.

This is not to say they don’t have heartwarming moments, or grand scenes of self-sacrifice. All of them do. But they can’t account for it. The heroes do this because they know it’s right, but according to their own view of the world, it’s not. There is no meaning in life, and without meaning, there’s no point in living one way and not the other.

I am frustrated because I am a Christian. These are skilled men who have done a lot to shape the world of entertainment, and they’re incapable of giving answers to the questions they have to ask. As a Christian, I know these answers. There is a God, not just a vague deity, but a Father better than the absentees of House’s world. He created a world that was perfect. Then, by our choice, all the pain entered into it that Angel sees, all the hypocrisy House points out, all the cruelty of the world that Nolan scripts.

But here’s the other side: Whedon is right. This hell still is worth fighting for. Not only that, but it has already been fought for. The ultimate apocalypse has already occurred. The hero did die, and saw the other side, and now he’s back. But unlike Buffy, he didn’t bring a demon with him. And unlike House, his return is not an ending. Unlike Nolan’s heroes, the victory he earned is real.

But purpose is more than past plot, it points towards an ending. It points at the happiness that Whedon pictures in every romance while it lasts, and that House ends with in so many hopeful episodes. According to the Gospel, Christ’s victory is spreading, making itself known, developing in this world. Eventually, death itself will die, and with it all the pain that sin brought into the universe.

And what is our purpose? What is the drive that keeps us going despite the pain? It’s that God is worth glorifying, and we’re built to do it. It’s that God’s creation is worth enjoying, and that’s what we’re made for. On a grand scheme, that’s enough. But on an individual level, the beauty of the Christian hope is that we all have a specific purpose. We have our own gifts to glorify God with, our own pleasures we take in his creation. We not only have purpose in general, we have specific, personal meanings.

But this leads to a different life than House’s self-interested dissolution and partying. We’re not just after our own pleasure. Drugs and sex with every woman we can get our hands on is not only a distraction, it begins to be wearying and painful. It loses meaning. But, as every hero shows in a moment of truth, self-sacrifice does give meaning. Living for others, for God’s own creations through which he is glorified, that is our code of conduct. That is how we live.

I have nothing but respect for the wonder and excitement and crazed insanity with which Joss Whedon crafts his worlds. I hope one day to achieve the tension and heartwarming moments of hope and humor House is capable of. One day I want to rock the writing world like Nolan rocks the box office. But all of them miss the Gospel. All of them ask the questions they cannot answer. The hope of a Christian artist is to be as good as the pagans, and better, but to offer a hope they can never match.

And, in my case, to pray these guys come to Christ. A Christian Joss Whedon could change the world. I hope one day he does.