A Prayer for the Irritated

As a practitioner of the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux (see Stranger God for that story), I've found this "Liturgy for a Fleeting Irritation" from the wonderful resource  Every Moment Holy to be very powerful:
I bring to you Lord, my momentary irritation,
that you might reveal the buried seed of it—not
in the words or actions of another person, but
in the withered and hypocritical expectations
of my own small heart. Uproot from this
impoverished soil all arrogance and insecurity that
would prompt me to dismiss or distain others,
judging them with a less generous measure than
I reckon when judging myself.
Prune away the tangled growth
of my own unjustified irritations, Jesus,
and graft to my heart instead your humility,
your compassion,
your patience,
your kindness,
That I might bear good fruit in keeping
with your grace.

Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Week 34, To Love all of God's Children

Just a reminder from last week's post that I'm away from my copy of Maps of Meaning, so we're in a bit of a holding pattern. This week I'd like to revisit Jordan Peterson's "Message to the Christian Churches" which I wrote about two weeks ago. 

I'd like to talk some more about this particular passage in Peterson's address:

“The Christian Church is there to remind people — young men included and perhaps even first and foremost — that they have a woman to find, a garden to walk in, a family to nurture, an ark to build, a land to conquer, a ladder to heaven to build, and the utter, terrible catastrophe of life to face stalwartly in truth, devoted to love and without fear.”
You'll recall I had some critical things to say about the lines "a land to conquer" and "a ladder to heaven to build." I left alone the other lines, lines like "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture."

Why did I pass over those lines? Well, in online spaces trying to say anything productive about gender and sexuality is like grabbing the third rail. The "third rail" being defined by one online idiom dictionary as "an issue or topic that is so controversial that it would immediately damage or destroy one's political career or credibility." But here goes...

It's almost impossible to say anything about gender or sexuality without your words being pulled to one side or the other in the culture wars. And for a person like me, this isn't solely a worry about "cancel culture." As someone who finds themself "in-between" progressives and conservatives--though not really "in-between" but just plain different--I worry about the right as well as the left mishearing what I'm trying to say or do. But I'm going to try here to say something at the risk of grabbing the third rail and this blowing up in my face.

In think the church is having a problem talking about gender and sexuality because of the dual meanings of the word "normative," and how those dual meanings create misunderstandings and slippery usage. Specifically, on the one hand, "normative" can mean the statistical norm, as in the "average." On the other hand, normative can mean a standard of behavior, as in the ethical and moral norms guiding right conduct. 

Now, of course, these things can bleed into each other. Statistical norms tend to create moral norms. What the majority of folks do or think tends to create the expectation that this is how you ought to act or think. But as we know, there's no logical connection here. Something can be the statistical norm and not be the ethical norm. The majority can be wrong. The minority can be right. 

In a different but related way, in social psychology there's a distinction between descriptive norms and prescriptive norms. Descriptive norms are what people actually do, and prescriptive norms are what people ought to do. These can be different. For our purposes regarding the slippery meaning of the word "norm," something can be descriptively "normal" (i.e., what most people are doing) but not ethically warranted. Normal is no guarantor of rightness. Consider pornography. Descriptively, pornography usage is "normal." Most people consume pornography. But does that mean pornography usage is ethical? We can debate that. But the debate highlights the differences in what we mean by "normal" and "norm."

Okay, back to Jordan Peterson's lines "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture." Recall, Peterson's message to the Christian churches concerns the ability of the church to appeal to the hearts and minds of young men.

Now, statistically speaking, as a descriptive norm, Peterson is correct. Most surveys have around 7% of the population identifying as LGBTQ. That means 90-95% of the population is cisgender and heterosexual. That's not surprising given the facts of human reproduction and its central role as the engine of biological evolution. And what that means, while hard for progressives to hear, is that Jordan Peterson is correct. Most young men--around 90-95%--do want "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture." And to sharpen the point, any church unwilling to say this out loud to 90-95% of the population is going to struggle from a messaging perspective. As the LGBTQ community has taught us, in quite profound ways, sexuality sits at the heart of human identity and selfhood. So it stands to reason that a church that cannot clearly speak into the deepest and most profound issues affecting 90-95% of the population will quickly face demographic headwinds. Statistically speaking, Peterson's message "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture" is a winning message. It's a message that will resonate with 90-95% of the population. The numbers are wholly on Peterson's side. 

And yet!

And yet, Peterson's lines "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture" likely were not heard statistically and descriptively. Those lines were likely heard prescriptively and morally. That is, the lines "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture," given Peterson's involvement in the culture wars, especially regarding transgender persons, are shots being fired in the culture wars. Those lines were "red meat" for conservatives and traditionalists. 

Which brings me to my point, as I inch closer to the third rail...

I'll say it plainly again: the descriptive does not logically imply the prescriptive. Most people in these debates don't monitor that logical distinction, but I think the church needs to if it wants to speak truthfully, impactfully, and inclusively about sex and gender in the modern world. 

Simply put, if a church wants to be pastorally relevant to the majority of young men it needs to recognize that 90-95% of young men actually do want "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture." Descriptively and statistically speaking, this is true. And yet, most progressive churches can't find their pastoral voice for this 90-95% as a recognition of that statistical norm is very prone to be interpreted as exclusionary and "heteronormative." And yet, heterosexuality is "normative," descriptively and statistically speaking. But again, that doesn't imply moral or ethical normativity. Notice how the meaning of "heteronormative" is sloshing back and forth. 

To try to state this simply and clearly, the church needs to respond to real demographic trends if it wants to have a significant evangelistic and pastoral impact upon the world. But responding impactfully to large demographic groups doesn't necessarily imply making ethical or moral judgments of minority populations.

Of course, it totally sucks to be in the statistical minority. (And you can blame Mother Nature for this as much as the Bible. And if you're an atheist you have to lay all the blame on Mother Nature.) Minority stress is a real thing that affects mental health. Consequently, we should do everything we can to mitigate this stress. We need to say, over and over, that not every young man wants "a woman to find" or "a family to nurture." But at the same time we should also take care, in caring for the minority, to not ignore the desires and pastoral needs of the 90-95%.

That, in a nutshell, is the question I'm asking. Are we forced, even doomed, into making a choice here? 

Must we so exclusively and aggressively focus on the 90-95% that the 5-10% feel marginalized, ignored, and excluded? Must we use a statistical norm to morally stigmatize the minority? 

Or must we so center the 5-10%, in light of legitimate fears about minority stress and stigma, that we never say anything directly and compellingly to the 90-95%? Must we message ourselves into a demographic death spiral? 

Do we have to choose here? Or can we pastorally recognize the needs and desires of both the majority and the minority? Cannot both be done? 

Here's what I think. I think a church that privileges the 90-95% over the 5-10% can win the numbers game. Many evangelical churches are going with this strategy. But at the cost of diversity, love and inclusion. By the same token, I think that the progressive churches who can't talk directly and compellingly to the hearts of 90-95% of the population are messaging themselves into extinction, to say nothing about ignoring the pastoral needs of the majority of people they are called to love in the world. In my opinion, the church should speak in compelling ways, evangelically and pastorally, to the entire world, to both the 90-95% and the 5-10%. That such churches are rare may imply that what I'm asking is impossible, especially in such a polarized world. But I think rare means hard rather than impossible.  

That conservatives will be upset with this post, because I don't morally stigmatize the 5-10%, is to be expected. That progressives will be upset with this post, because my calling for recognition of the pastoral needs of the 90-95% will entrench heteronormativity, is to be expected. Maybe I've grabbed the third rail here. But I have this deep and crazy conviction that the church is called to love all of God's children, both the 90-95% and the 5-10%. 

To love all of God's children. It might be just that hard and simple. 

The Politics of Resurrection

In our Adult Faith class at church we've been going through the book of Acts. On my week to teach I had Acts 5.12-42.

Before reading that text, I backed up and had the class read Luke 9.23-27:

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”
I asked the class this question: "What would have this sounded like--this call to 'take up you cross and follow me'--to the people standing there that day listening to Jesus?"

We've so moralized this text that I don't think we appreciate what Jesus was asking. Crosses littered the landscape. People carrying crosses on the way to crucifixion were driven through city streets. The roads leading into cities were lined with bodies hanging on crosses.

The cross was a tool of Imperial terror and control. Its shadow of fear fell over every aspect of colonial life in the outposts of the Roman Empire. Crucifixion was a bully demanding obedience and compliance.

And in the face of that threat and terror Jesus says, "take up your cross and follow me." It was a call to radical fearlessness for a people living under the shadow of Imperial torture.

And yet, the day Jesus said these words no one knew about Easter Sunday. Without the resurrection the fearless call to "take up your cross and follow me" would have sounded suicidal. But with Jesus raised from the the dead the Imperial threat had lost its grip upon the political imagination of Jesus' followers. They had been emancipated from fear. Just as Jesus had been in the face of Pilate's threats. And the outcome of this liberation was twofold. First, no threat of violence could sway or deter the followers of Jesus. They had became fearless. They now existed outside the bounds of Imperial control. Without fear they had become unmanageable. Second, they had joy. In the face of beatings, torture and imprisonment the followers of Jesus would sing.

Basically, the politics of the resurrection explains the very odd behavior of the apostles in Acts 5. Selected portions of the text:
The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number...

Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail...

The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings!..."

They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.
This is the political impact of the resurrection, a people wholly willing to take up their cross and follow Jesus, to death if necessary. Such a people cannot be intimidated. Not threat of physical violence could sway or stop them. They are free to obey God rather than man, no matter the cost. They sang in the face of torture. And out of that fearless political imagination a new world would be born. 

A Covenant with my Eyes: Part 3, Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart

In the book Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart: Cultivating a Sacramental Imagination in an Age of Pornography Elizabeth T. Groppe makes a contrast between "the sacramental gaze" and "the pornographic gaze." 

Drawing from the rich tradition of Orthodox iconography, Groppe places vision at the center of Christian practice and spiritual formation. The Christian life is a journey of sight, coming to behold the beatific vision. As Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, the journey of love is coming to see God more and more clearly until we gaze upon each other "face to face." We make this journey, in the words of Ephesians, by learning to see "with the eyes of the heart."

This vision is "sacramental" as we come to behold invisible, spiritual truths shining though material reality. Proper Christian vision participates in a "sacramental ontology," where we see a world "charged with the grandeur of God."

This emphasis upon a proper seeing of the material world is most obvious in the Orthodox tradition of iconography, where material objects (icons) are considered to be "windows" into deeper spiritual realities. Similarly, the "sacramental gaze" considers every material object to be a window into the divine. This includes human bodies, even naked human bodies. 

To "make a covenant with my eyes," in this view, is practicing a sacramental gaze when it comes to human bodies. Opposed to this sacramental gaze is the pornographic gaze. The pornographic gaze is greedy, consumptive, and objectifying. The pornographic gaze is iconoclastic perception, a form of perceptual violence, as it rips the sacred from the material. In the thought of Martin Buber, the pornographic gaze creates an objectifying and deadening I-It relation with the world.  By contrast, the sacramental gaze beholds an I-Thou relation, a meeting with a holy other. The sacramental gaze creates a sacred encounter. To see with the eyes of the heart incarnates a relation of love. 

In short, the call to resist pornography isn't to practice a grim puritanism. Nor is it a shame-filled rejection of the gift of human sexuality and eroticism. The imperative to "make a covenant with my eyes" is, rather, learning to envision the world correctly, rejecting an I-It relation for an I-Thou relation, as we gaze at each other. In rejecting the pornographic gaze in favor of the sacramental gaze, we come to see the world with the eyes of our heart.

A Covenant with my Eyes: Part 2, Maybe Augustine Was Right

Among conservative Christians, at least among those who love church history, Augustine stands as a giant. But among more progressive Christians, Augustine's image is more troubled. Augustine is "problematic," as they say.

Much of "the problem" with Augustine has to do with Augustine's relationship with sex. As readers of The Confessions know, the central struggle in Augustine's conversion was more about sex than belief. Could he give up sex? That was his huge struggle. And very late in life, in his debate with Julian, Augustine argues that sexual desire is inherently disordered.

Obviously, Augustine's views don't sit well with modern, progressive views about sex. Augustine seems to represent, and is perhaps the origin and source, of all that is repressed, guilt-ridden, and puritanical in Christian views about sex.

And yet, many have noticed that there is a very Augustinian vibe that runs through much of modern life regarding sex. Specifically, men are expected to display the Augustinian virtue of continence, the ability to show self-restraint in controlling sexual impulses.

Consider two examples. 

First, it is widely considered to be a propagation of "rape myths," beliefs that shift blame for sexual assault from perpetrators onto victims, to describe men as being unable control their sexual impulses. Even when sexually aroused, the expectation in our liberated sexual world is that men should display Augustinian control. Respecting consent in the grip of passion, prior to and even in the midst of intercourse itself, demands the virtue of continence. 

A second example concerns the interest of this series. Consider the cultural debates about modesty. Must women dress modestly to prevent men from having lustful thoughts? Historically, in conservative Christian circles, the burden was placed upon women. Women had to dress modestly in order to protect men from sexual temptation. But over the last generation, this discourse has changed, especially in progressive Christian spaces. The burden has shifted onto men. Women should be allowed to dress however they want, and it is up to men to control their own thoughts. Again, the demand here from progressives is Augustinian, a demand for sexual self-control and self-restraint. No matter how women dress, men must make "a covenant with their eyes" in managing their sexual desires when looking at women in public spaces.

My point in these illustrations isn't to take sides in any of these debates, but to simply note a surprising, and even ironic, convergence of our liberated sexual ethic upon the Augustinian virtue of continence. Augustine is regularly made a whipping boy among progressives, a vision of all that is wrong with how Christians view sex. And yet, some Augustinian virtues sit at the very heart of many progressive expectations surrounding sex, from consent to modesty.

But that, however, raises a hug, huge question for the modern world. If the modern sexual ethic demands Augustinian restraint, just where is this virtue being formed in our culture? Because you can't expect virtue without formation. That is a truism. And if this virtue isn't being formed, then whence comes this demand and expectation?

A Covenant with my Eyes: Part 1, Vision in a Pornographic Age

In my daily Bible reading I was in the book of Job and was interrupted by a line from Job 31.1. In defending his righteousness before God Job says this:

“I made a covenant with my eyes
not to look lustfully at a young woman."

"I made a covenant with my eyes." What a profound statement in an age of pornography. 

When I was growing up, I didn't really have to make a covenant with my eyes. Pornography was primarily a print medium, magazines like Playboy and Penthouse. A young teenager couldn't buy those magazines. So there was a barrier of social embarrassment and shame in trying to purchase these magazines. And for a teenager like me, someone trying to be a good Christian, that barrier was enough to keep me clear from a consistent exposure to pornography. To be clear, however, I was exposed. Friends at school had access to the magazines because of fathers, older brothers, or because they lacked the embarrassment I felt in attempting to buy a magazine. So pictures were shared among friends. And I kept some of those pictures when offered to me. I recall the very embarrassing day when my father found some of these pictures hidden in my room.

Still, in an age of print my exposure to pornography was sporadic, limited and furtive. And then came the iPhone...

There's not a single Christian parent that I know who isn't absolutely terrified to give their young sons an iPhone. And the statistics say you should be just as worried about your daughters. Some estimates have the porn business making 15 billion dollars a year. But that number doesn't remotely capture the free access to pornography through sites like PornHub. Some estimates say that 20% of mobile (phone) searches on the Internet are porn-related. Imagine that, one out of every five Google searches is for pornography. And the rates of men who watch porn at least once a week is around 90%. 

All that to say, we're living in a very different world from the one I grew up in. The message "make a covenant with your eyes" couldn't be more timely and important.

What interested me in the line from Job was the frame of vision. As regular readers know, and as I talk about in Hunting Magic Eels, the issue of perception is something I've been thinking about a great deal when it comes to faith. So I was struck by the perceptional issues in what it might mean to "make a covenant with your eyes." How is our perception being affected living in an age of pornography? And how might we resist these effects?

Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Week 33, A Recap and Review

Guess what? 

I'm on vacation with my family and forgot to bring along my copy of Maps of Meaning. So this Friday and the next two I'm unable to push us further into the book. 

Given that situation, I thought this week we could pause and take stock. Many new readers have joined this blog or the Substack newsletter since the start of this series, and so might have missed some important moments. Plus, thirty-three installments into this series even the most devoted of readers might have missed a post or two, or would like a reminder about the territory we've covered. With that in mind, a little recap and review.

To start, why am I doing this series about such a controversial and polarizing figure? A person, in fact, who gets more controversial and polarizing by the day!

As I shared at the start of this series, my interest in Jordan Peterson is narrow and twofold. First, along with many others, I was stunned at how successful Peterson's lectures about the Bible were received, especially by young men, many of whom had been attracted to skepticism and atheism. Peterson was able to get a post-Christian world to sit up and take the Bible seriously. That success should interest a church wanting to be involved with evangelism. 

My second interest in Jordan Peterson is his appeal to young men, many of whom seem lost. This is a demographic the church struggles with, so getting some insight into Peterson's attractiveness among young men could help the church with some crucial demographic discernment. 

Those are my two, narrow interests in Jordan Peterson. Trouble is, there's a lot more going on with Peterson that turns people off and causes people to question my giving him any attention at all. Can you bracket out those controversies to look narrowly at specific parts of Peterson's work? I have tried to do so in this series. You can judge how successfully. 

Looking back, then, over thirty-two weeks of posts, what have we observed? Let me try to summarize by sharing the positives and the negatives I've taken from Peterson's book Maps of Meaning, his magnum opus. 

Overall, there are four things I've really appreciated about Jordan Peterson's work.

First, his moral and existential urgency. As I shared early in this series, Peterson is playing a high stakes game. He's trying to save your soul. That passion and pathos makes him a compelling, even electrifying, figure to many. And I think the church can learn from this. By and large, the church has turned away from hellfire and brimstone preaching. We don't dangle audiences over the pit of hell anymore. Which is a shame, because you know who does this all the time? Jordan Peterson. Here's a public intellectual who talks about hell, damnation, evil, and Satan all the time. These aren't normal topics among academics, public intellectuals, or pundits. And yet, millions of people have listened to Peterson's lectures on the Bible. And I think a huge part of the appeal is the hellfire and damnation aspect. 

So, how does Peterson get away with this in a way Biblical fundamentalists cannot? This is the second thing to appreciate about Peterson, his Jungian approach to Scripture. Peterson isn't talking about a literal hell, he's talking about psychological and relational hell. Existential hell. Hell on earth. As we've learned in this series, Peterson reads the Bible mythologically, using it to convey timeless truths and wisdom about the human experience and predicament. And given Peterson's evolutionary twist, we ignore these myths are our peril. Blow off a myth and you're walking off an adaptive cliff. Myths have been forged in the fires of human adaptation and they contain the distilled wisdom of the ages. Myths are a lifeboat. Myths are a compass. And the Great Myth of the West is the Holy Bible. So if you blow off the Bible you're pretty much headed for hell. Not a literal hell, but a hell of your own making. 

Which brings us to a third positive about Jordan Peterson. According to Peterson, values are encoded in our actions. Behaviors are beliefs. Everyone in the West is functionally Christian because everyone in the West is operating, implicitly and behaviorally, according to the Judeo-Christian myth. The Bible is our cultural operating system. 

Basically, Peterson has been able to sidestep tired theological and apologetical debates with non-believers by observing the values implicitly at work in our behavior and psychology. No one lives like a nihilist. People act "as if" the Bible is true.

A final positive thing we've observed about Jordan Peterson is how his "order the chaos" and "slay the dragon" message appeals to young men. People need to feel like their lives have a heroic aspect, and Peterson's work with the Jungian hero archetype has found a resonance with many, not just with young men, but perhaps young men especially. Many of us need dragons to slay, and the church should think about how that impulse can be redemptively evoked and directed, rather than shamed or squashed.

If these have been some of the positive things we've found in Maps of Meaning, what have been the negatives? I've raised two concerns repeatedly in this series.

First, Peterson tends to gender Chaos as feminine. Thus, the imperatives to "order the chaos" or "slay the dragon" can traffic in implicit misogyny. This is especially worrisome given Peterson's fans among the alt-right. In this series I also made a contrast between Jordan Peterson and how Carl Jung thought about the Anima and Animus archetypes. Specifically, where Peterson casts the relation between the Hero (masculine) and Chaos (feminine) agonistically, Jung sees the Anima (feminine) and Animus (masculine) as operating synergistically

To be clear, I'm not trying to damn Peterson's project here. Nor am I saying his "slay the dragon" and "order the chaos" sermons are not true. I just said above how I appreciate those messages. But I am noting a place where Peterson's message can be corrupted and co-opted by misogyny, patriarchy and toxic masculinity. This temptation and corruption needs to be monitored in discerning how Peterson's work is being received and put to use.

The second criticism I've had about Peterson is how he handles Jesus. Simply, Peterson casts Jesus as an existential hero who faces and carries, with courage and love, the unbearable suffering and pain of existence to create something redemptive and beautiful. As I've repeatedly said, this is true as far as it goes. I have no problem seeing Christ as an existential hero. My repeated objection, however, is reducing Christ to an existential hero. At the end of the day, Christ is a model of coping for Jordan Peterson. And while Christians believe we are called to follow and imitate Jesus, we believe that Jesus is much more than a heroic exemplar. Of course, if that's all the Jesus you can muster or believe in, that's cool. But Christians believe that Jesus is much more. For example, as I've pointed out in this series, the cross of Christ is the epistemological crisis of the world. No human theory stands in judgment of the cross. The cross, rather, calls into question all human theories, including the theories of Carl Jung and Jordan Peterson. 

This, then, is a summary of what I consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of Jordan Peterson's Maps of Meaning given my particular concerns. 

As for what we'll do for the next two Fridays while I'm away from my copy of the book, we'll just have to see. I'll give it a think. Have a blessed weekend.

The Chicken and the Egg: Part 6, Some Helpful Advice for Churches

When I wrote this series (three months ago) it ended yesterday. Originally, I simply described the spiritual formation problem I call the "chicken and the egg" and shared four examples of the problem I've encountered in working with churches. 

But now that the series has appeared I have wondered about if I should say something about how a church might tackle these sorts of problems. What do you think? End with something helpful? I agree! So, a final solution-focused post.

To start, let's be clear that there is no solution. Quality spiritual formation in churches is like searching for the Holy Grail. This is the number one problem faced by churches and we're all chasing after answers. So many books, seminary classes, and church meetings have been devoted to the issue of spiritual formation it boggles the imagination. How can we reliably and effectively form our members into mature followers of Jesus? Goodness, if I had the answer to that question I'd be a whole lot more famous and well-known than I am now. But there is no silver bullet here. We just have to keep working the problem of spiritual formation in our faith communities doggedly, faithfully, hopefully, joyfully and contextually. 

That said, how can we approach chicken and egg problems, where lacking certain virtues cause us to avoid or resist virtue-formation practices? Here are five recommendations.

First, narrate what is happening in the church. Pastors do not possess the power of spiritual formation, but they do possess the power of narration. Pastors cannot talk people into becoming wise, faithful and loving followers of Jesus. But pastors can stand at the microphone and explain what the hell is going on. And yet, to my constant astonishment, pastors routinely fail to exercise this, the only real power they have. Pastors tend to speak generically, abstractly, and Biblically about topics and issues. They rarely speak concretely and specifically about what is going on in the pews, relationally, attitudinally, and emotionally.

In psychotherapy there is a technique called "immediacy." In a counseling session a therapist uses immediacy to "focus attention on the here and now relationship of counsellor and client with helpful timing, in order to challenge defensiveness and/or heighten awareness." Let's say in the therapy session you notice the client getting defensive. Using immediacy the therapist might say, "I noticed your voice raising a bit when you said that." You draw attention to the somatic symptoms of anger or anxiety as they are happening in real time. 

This is what I'm suggesting pastors do at the microphone. Use immediacy to help narrate what is happening when you face chicken and egg problems. Consider my examples about conversations regarding race, welcoming difference, or sharing the stage with the less gifted. As people get angry, anxious or bored in these experiences draw attention to those feelings (immediacy) and help narrate the church through those experiences. Pastors, you have a single superpower--narration--use it.

Second, use the community to help each other take the next steps. Spiritual formation is often thrust upon individuals. Taking collective steps, together, can help with this. Consider Sabbath. Asking the members of the church to individually take up Sabbath practices will be uneven. Having the entire church take on Sabbath challenges helps with this. We're all in this together. And pastors, make sure you devote time to tell the story of the challenge. Remember: You have no power over formation, but all the power of narration. So tell the stories as the church moves through a formational practice. Tell the stories of consolation and desolation. Get a panel of members on the stage and let the church talk to each other. 

Third, borrowing from Mark Scandrette, think about spiritual formation experiments rather than big ministry initiatives. Targeted, short term, experiential challenges, for the entire church or a small group within the church. Do you want people to get off their iPhones more? Have everyone leave them at home once a month before coming to church. Get creative and have fun. Chip away at those chicken and egg problems. And pastors, don't forget to narrate!

Fourth, come at things sideways. Making a church sit down to "have a conversation about race" might be too much given how polarized our world is right now. But what about taking a Civil Rights history tour or pilgrimage? Or gathering to watch a documentary or movie? People's opinions change because of experiences. No one enjoys moralized finger-wagging. Trying to get people to self-identify as "fragile," for example, is both stupid and ineffective. Instead, try to curate experiences that will affect how people see the world.

Lastly, use micro-habits to bootstrap your way forward. When we face chicken and egg problems we need to do some bootstrapping, pulling a little here and then a little there. Small movements, back and forth. Psychologists call these small movements micro-habits. The best-selling book Atomic Habits is a popular introduction to the idea. You want to develop a running habit, so you start by putting your running shoes out before you go to bed. You want to spend less time on your phone so you don't charge it overnight in your bedroom. Little actions help you bootstrap your way into bigger and bigger changes. Think about moving your church forward with micro-habits. What small things can you do that will accumulate over time? Don't crash into your church, nudge it forward. 

The last thing I'd say, as the author of Hunting Magic Eels, is pray. Don't make spiritual formation a godless, disenchanted bit of behavioral technology. Pray. Pray that the power that raised Jesus from the dead will be at work in your life and the life of your church. And if you struggle with prayer, put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror to remind yourself. It's a helpful little micro-habit...

The Chicken and the Egg: Part 5, Sabbath and Shame

This is a point I've made before, but it's another illustration of the chicken and egg problems facing churches.

We hear a lot about how stressed, busy, rushed, maxed out, and burnt out we all are. And how all this is destroying our physical, emotional, familial and relational health. Into that stress and strain we hear the call to practice Sabbath. We need to find space and margin for rest and relationship. 

The message of Sabbath falls like rain on dry ground. Rest! That sounds so, so amazing. Everyone wants it. And yet, no one does it.

That's a really strange situation, if you ponder it. Why is something so desired a thing we never do? Medicine is at hand, yet we keep refusing to take it. Why?

As I've argued, in a world where we measure our value and worth by metrics of productivity, a certain degree of shame-resiliency is needed for Sabbath. To step into Sabbath rhythms requires stepping away from a striving for greater and greater success. But to accomplish this, you have to face your own self-esteem project, along with the social shame of letting your peer cohort advance beyond you as you stay where you are, and even back up. That's the problem. Sabbath is a zero-sum game. If you're resting, you're not working. And if you're not working, you're not advancing or succeeding. 

In short, Sabbath, as a call for spiritual formation, demands some prior virtues, like shame-resiliency. If you lack those virtues you don't make the sacrifices Sabbath demands. Rest comes with a price-tag, and most of us lack the virtues to pay that price. Chicken and egg. We can't engage in virtue-formation practices, such as Sabbath, because we lack the virtues to engage those practices.

The Chicken and the Egg: Part 4, Consumerism and Worship

When churches consider spiritual formation efforts, one of the levers they can pull is Sunday morning worship. This is the time when the whole church is gathered and leaders have everyone's attention.

And yet, these desires and efforts frequently face the chicken and egg problem.

Let me describe two problems that often come up in my work with churches.

The first concerns hospitality in the space. For example, I've worked with a few churches who do an amazing job welcoming the mentally ill into their worship services. Looking at that example, many other churches wish they could do the same. Trouble is, welcoming the mentally ill into your space creates some challenges. Those struggling with mental illness can wander around or be noisy. They can seem scary to those who lack experiences with these populations. Consequently, many churches will lack the skills, virtues and experiences necessary to practice this sort of welcome. The mentally ill in the space would be too "disruptive." 

We're back to a chicken and egg problem. The only way you gain skill and experience in welcoming the mentally ill is by getting that experience. But lacking this experience, churches will struggle early on in extending this sort of welcome and, in the face of that discomfort, back off, never acquiring the needed skills and capacities.

A second problem concerns giftedness and sharing the stage on Sunday. Specifically, in many churches those who are on the stage tend to be the talented. In the praise band are good musicians. The vocalists can sing. And the preacher is a good speaker. These are their gifts. And yet, consistently spotlighting talent can spiritually malform a church. Church isn't a show, church isn't a performance. But that's what happens if we only put talent on the stage.

Consequently, many churches would like to share the stage more with all the members. But if they do that the quality of the service, from a performative aspect, will suffer. By definition. Giving the sermon to a less gifted speaker means, of course, that the sermon will be less interesting. The audience will become bored. Same goes for a praise band and vocalists. If more people get to participate in leading worship the quality of the music will suffer some.

I know many church leaders would love to go in this direction, sharing the stage more and decentering talent. Trouble is, these leaders are terrified to make this move as their churches don't possess the virtues needed to sit through boring sermons and praise music that isn't top notch. Our people are too consumeristic in how they experience worship. Thus, anything that lacks quality--off notes or snoozer sermons--will push the congregation toward other churches were the worship and sermons are consistently amazing. 

Chicken and egg again. We'd like to make worship less a show, but consumers are sitting in the pews. So how do you shape those consumers without causing them to leave in search of a better product? You'll have to form a different vision of worship, a vision that creates tolerances for a diversity of gifts, a people willing to sit through sermons and praise experiences that prioritize inclusion over quality. But that demands a degree of charity and maturity most consumers do not possess. Knowing this, churches become paralyzed and take the path of least resistance: Keep the talent on the stage and make quality an anxious priority.

The Chicken and the Egg: Part 3, Friendships on the Margins

A second example of the "chicken and egg" problem concerns practices of hospitality and cultivating friendships on the margins. Because of Unclean and Stranger God this issue is the one I'm most confronted with in consulting with churches. 

In my work with churches regarding their practices of hospitality, we routinely face the imperative to virtue gap. Specifically, you can tell people to be hospitable, but hospitality is hard when the groups involved are very different. Hospitality isn't easy. Hospitality takes you out of your comfort zone. Hospitality can be confusing, awkward, and anxiety-inducing. Consequently, practices of hospitality demand certain emotional and relational capacities. Trouble is, you only acquire those capacities by stepping into hospitality, being willing to try, learn, and make mistakes. Experience is always the best teacher, but you have to be willing to have the experience in the first place.

Which brings us back to a chicken and egg problem. Churches want to be more hospitable, but the hospitality they want to extend creates anxiety and disorientation. New and different faces makes things unpredictable. Many churches lack the tolerances required to step into this ambiguity. So they back up, pulling away from difference. But if you back up you never acquire the skills and experiences needed to cultivate friendships on the margins.

Hospitality requires capacities, but those capacities are only acquired through practicing hospitality. Chicken and egg.    

Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 32, A Message to the Christian Churches

We interrupt this series walking through Jordan Peterson's book Maps of Meaning to say a few things about his recently released video "Message to the Christian Churches." Many readers reached out to me when the video landed, wondering about my reaction.

First, if you missed it, here's the video:

In tone, presentation, and style, the video is very "Jordan Peterson." Frankly, I felt the whole thing was comically overwrought. Still, the video has over a million views and has been praised by many, along with attracting the predictable criticism. 

Regarding the content of the video, a few thoughts.

First, over half the video, the first half, is culture war stuff. This is the lamentable part of the message, and of Jordan Peterson as a whole. This is the part of Jordan Peterson that causes many of you to skip these Friday posts and question the amount of time I've devoted to walking through Peterson's Maps of Meaning

Here's why that first half of the video is lamentable. Peterson is arguing that young men are not attracted to the church because of wokeism, critical race theory, social justice activism, political correctness, etc., etc., etc. Let me set aside for the moment any comment regarding the good, the bad, and the ugly of progressive, leftist politics. I mainly want to focus in on Peterson's claim that wokeism is keeping young men from going to church.

To start, Peterson is simply wrong about his diagnosis. The "crisis" of young men going to church isn't due to wokeism. This "crisis" is a longstanding historical trend. "Where have all the men gone?" was a common concern throughout the Protestant Reformation. And the early church was criticized by pagan critics as being too popular among women. In short, Christianity has had a two-thousand year long "issue" regarding male involvement. Contemporary concerns about young men and the church are not new but reflect a longstanding challenge.

Okay, so if wokeism isn't to blame why might this trend exist? 

I'll confess that a proper answer would require a deep sociological analysis that I just haven't done. And I doubt any monocausal "explanation" will prove adequate. But let me dare to share a hunch. 

My suspicion is that a religion that makes kenotic love the preeminent virtue is always going to struggle with highly agentic types (i.e, those prone toward aggression, competition, and dominance). And as Jordan Peterson never tires of reminding us, on Big 5 tests men are, statistically speaking, more agentic than women. (In the “Big Two” personality model of agency/communion, women are higher on communion, traits associated with interpersonal connection.) Simply, I think cruciformity is just a hard message for highly agentic men. Always has been, always will. 

To be clear, I don't think being highly agentic means being "toxic." I'm just saying the Christian ethic of kenotic love is going to experience chronic friction with those who score higher on traits associated with aggression, competition, and dominance. And these people tend to be men.

A related issue concerns church life itself. Historically, church life has been both highly relational and patriarchal. This is a double whammy for highly agentic men. First, all the relational stuff at church holds little appeal to men who want to be off doing something active and competitive. Golfing or fishing will always be more appealing than singing "Oceans" for the millionth time. Plus, standing around on a Sunday doing a lot of small talk seems pointless and makes a lot of highly agentic men feel stupid and awkward. Second, churches have historically been patriarchal and hierarchical. Men have traditionally led churches. Which is great if you're one of the leaders. But if you're an agentic man, wired to chaff at being low on a dominance hierarchy, why would you give two flips about what Pastor Rick has to say? If you're wired to be an "alpha" submitting to authority is just no fun way to spend your time. You avoid it whenever you can. Highly agentic men aren't attracted to "being in submission" to other men.

Feel free to disagree with me about any of this. I'm just suggesting that there are some deeper and longstanding issues regarding men and Christianity that have nothing to do with Jordan Peterson's handwringing about wokeism.

Second, all that said, there is a challenge here. And Peterson is to be commended for drawing attention to the plight of young men. You might have not have a lot of sympathy for the "crisis of masculinity" in the modern world, but many do. Young men are struggling to figure out where they "fit" in the modern world. Many young men are lost. 

So, how to respond to this situation? 

Well, one way is to create an agentic version of Christianity. This was the vision of Mark Driscoll, who wanted to create a "masculine" version of Christianity. Jordan Peterson's message to the Christian churches is Mark Driscoll 2.0, suggesting that churches should offer young men an agentically-inflected Christianity. As Peterson says in the video: 
“The Christian Church is there to remind people — young men included and perhaps even first and foremost — that they have a woman to find, a garden to walk in, a family to nurture, an ark to build, a land to conquer, a ladder to heaven to build, and the utter, terrible catastrophe of life to face stalwartly in truth, devoted to love and without fear.”
Regular readers of this Friday series will know what I think of this passage, especially in light of what I shared above. I appreciate what Peterson is trying to do. I love his compassion for young men. And yet, what Peterson describes above just isn't Christianity. A "ladder to heaven to build" is the Tower of Babel, and the line "a land to conquer" is just evil. Also, as I've shared recently in this series, given Peterson's metaphysics, he preaches stoicism, not Christ. You see that in the line "the utter, terrible catastrophe of life to face stalwartly." To be clear, I'm a huge fan of both existentialism and stoicism. I agree that facing "the utter, terrible catastrophe of life" is a hero quest. It's Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Amen to all that. It's just not the Good News of Christianity.

Lastly, Peterson ends the video on a poignant false dichotomy. Shall the church care about social justice or attend to the souls of young men? To which I ask: And why is this a choice? I don't understand why fighting racism or having a concern about global warming involves turning your back on young men. I think it possible to care about all these things. I think you can care about something like sex trafficking and the crisis of young men at the same time. This seems easy to me, but it appears to have flummoxed Jordan Peterson. 

But does Peterson have a point that the church, by and large, has neglected to attend to the souls of young men? We can debate that. The church is a mixed bag. But it does seem to me that too many young men are lost in video games, porn, gun culture and drug use. And I think the church should care about this just as much as Jordan Peterson does. 

The Chicken and the Egg: Part 2, White Fragility

Let's talk about something uncontroversial, like white fragility!

I expect many readers will have a ton of reactions to the term "white fragility" given how that term, along with "woke," "critical race theory," and "antiracism," have become a part of the culture wars. But in keeping true to myself and this space, I could care less about the culture wars. And I think the vast majority of my readers follow me for just that reason. 

To start, for the few who haven't heard of the term, "white fragility" describes how white people can become upset and defensive when talking about issues of race and racial privilege. 

That white fragility exists I'm taking as a given. For three reasons: 1) I've seen it in myself, 2) I've seen it among my students when we talk about race in class, and 3) I've seen it in my church when the church has tried to talk about race. Trust me, ask any pastor of a majority white church how relaxed and open-hearted their congregation is when they have tried to bring up issues of racial justice. By and large, when it comes to race, white churches can be pretty defensive. This should not be news to anyone.

Which brings me to our first chicken and egg problem.

First, the chicken. To have a productive conversation about race certain virtues have to be in place, virtues like emotional self-control, empathy, perspective-taking  tolerance for conflict, and a capacity for moral self-criticism. A certain degree of maturity is required to have a productive conversation about difficult subjects such as race. 

Next, the egg. To create capacities and virtues for difficult conversations you need to have some difficult conversations. As I said in my last post, virtues require practice. 

So you see the problem: We need to have difficult conversation to acquire capacities for difficult conversations. But if we lack those capacities for difficult conversations we never have the difficult conversations. And so the capacities are never developed.

Again, just ask any pastor who has ever tried or wants to try to have a difficult conversation about race, or any controversial issue, with their church. The pastors want to have the conversation, but their people lack the virtues necessary to have the conversation. At least a productive conversation. And so, the conversation never happens. And the church never changes.

Chicken and egg.

The Chicken and the Egg: Part 1, What Comes First? Virtue or Practice?

In my trainings and consultations with churches I've come to describe what I call "the imperative to virtue gap." That description might be new, but the idea is old.

Specifically, we can't expect performance where we lack capacity. This is a point with a rich history in the spiritual formation literature. Spiritual formation concerns practices that form habits. These habits create virtue, holy capacities of thought, heart, and action.

Think about moral performance as akin to musical or athletic performance. We can't expect performance where there has been no practice. We can't tell a new pianist to play a Bach concerto. Or a new golfer to hit a driver straight and long. 

And yet, we regularly expect moral performance to emerge at the sharp end of a command. We traffic in imperatives, "Do this, do that." Yet we lack the capacities for the performance. We've never practiced. Spiritual formation has to bridge this imperative to virtue gap.

There is a related problem here, which this series is about. In my work with churches we regularly face what I call "the chicken and egg problem." The chicken and egg problem concerns how we often require a virtue in order to submit to or learn from a season of training and habit formation. Think about the virtue that athletic people call "coachability." Coachability refers to your willingness to accept feedback and criticism and to make adjustments accordingly. That is to say, practice is only effective for an athlete if they are coachable. There is a virtue necessary to make practice effective

So what happens if an athlete isn't coachable? Practice is much less effective. So we're in a chicken and egg problem. Virtues are acquired through practice, but you can also lack virtues that makes practice effective. Or lack virtues that allow you to submit to practice. Laziness and busyness, for example, interfere with practice. So what comes first? The virtue or the practice? What sort of practice cultivates the virtue of coachability when the people engaged in the practice are uncoachable?

Chicken, meet egg. Egg, meet chicken.

When you work with churches this chicken and egg problem shows up over and over again. In the posts to come I'll share some chicken and egg problems that churches regularly face.