The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: Part 25, Listen to Your Mother

Today we reach the end of Louise Perry's The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, a conclusion entitled "Listen to Your Mother."

Perry starts her Conclusion by summarizing the big points of the book, captured in her provocative chapter titles, along with sharing a list of advice that she would offer her own daughter, advice that she wishes all young women being raised in hookup culture could hear. Some of Perry's advice to young women and daughters:

  • Distrust any person or ideology that puts pressure on you to ignore your moral intuition. 
  • Chivalry is actually a good thing. We all have to control our sexual desires, and men particularly so, given their greater physical strength and average higher sex drives.
  • A man who is aroused by violence is a man to steer well clear of, whether or not he uses the vocabulary of BDSM to excuse his behavior. If he can maintain an erection while beating a woman, he isn't safe to be alone with.
  • Consent workshops are mostly useless [in preventing rape]...
  • Get drunk or high in private and with female friends rather than in public or in mixed company.
  • Holding off on having sex with a new boyfriend for at least a few months is a good way of discovering whether or not he's serious about you or just looking for a hook-up.
  • Only have sex with a man if you think he would make a good father to your children--not because you necessarily intend to have children with him, but because this is a good rule of thumb in deciding whether or not he's worthy of your trust.
  • Monogamous marriage is by far the most stable and reliable foundation on which to build a family.

Perry admits that her advice isn't particularly novel or new. As she writes, "I wrote in the first chapter that none of my advice would be ground-breaking, and I stand by that."

You may like, or not like, Perry's advice. You might want to create your own list, different from Perry's or expanded. But what strikes me is simply the need for advice, perhaps even a desperate, urgent need. 

This reminds me of a post I wrote a while back, defending the likes of Jordan Peterson and Joel Osteen, two very problematic characters, to say the least. Why would I do something so unpopular and alarming in defending those two? Well, I wasn't defending them, I was merely trying to suss out their appeal, what makes them so popular. And what I surmised is that both Peterson and Osteen traffic in giving advice. Advice that is pretty obvious and banal. Not unlike Perry's advice above. But advice, nonetheless. And it raises the question: Why is advice so attractive?

Well, I argued, we are living in a world where families are broken. Young people aren't getting much parenting anymore. Our mediating institutions, like local churches, are also dying. Consequently, young people lack intergenerational friendships where wisdom was once imparted. To put the matter bluntly, PornHub and TikTok are raising this generation of young people.

In short, there is a need for some good old-fashioned advice. Wisdom, even the obvious stuff, can get a hearing if you're willing to share it.

And that's how Perry ends her book, with a call for parenting. Perry points to a 2021 viral TikTok post by young woman called Abby. In the post, Abby says:

I, like many other college students, am someone who is entangled in hook-up culture, and often hook-up culture makes it difficult for me to determine whether or not what I'm doing is good for me and kind to myself...

Abby goes on to share pictures of herself as a little girl. She imagines herself being her own mother, talking to that little girl. And as Abby reflects upon how she's been treated in hooking up with men, she asks herself the questions she thinks a mother would ask: "Am I OK with that for her?" and "Would I let this happen to her?" Watching Abby trying to be her own parent, Perry comes to the end of her book:

Abby is trying to mother herself, though she isn't quite sure how to do it. And thousands of young women in her replies are trying to do the same...They've been denied the guidance of mothers, not because their actual mothers are unwilling to offer it but because of a matricidal impulse in liberal feminism that cuts young women off from the 'problematic' older generation. This means not only that they are cut off from the voices of experience, but--more importantly--they are cut off from the person who loves them most in the world. Feminism needs to rediscover the mother, in every sense.

Until we do, each individual woman will have to learn on her own the lie of the promise of sexual liberation--the lie that tells us, as Andrea Dworkin phrased it, that 'fucking per se is freedom per se.' It was a lie all along. It's time, at last, to say so.

"What Happened Then" by Paul Mariani

The poem "What Happened Then" by Paul Mariani:

Do we understand what happened then?
The few of us in that shuttered room,
lamps dimmed, afraid of what would happen
when they found us? The women back
this morning to tell Peter what they’d seen.
Then these two back from Emmaus.
And now here he was. Here in the room with us.
Strange meeting this, the holes there
in his hands and feet and heart.
And who could have guessed a calm like this
could touch us. But that was what we felt.
The deep relief you feel when the one
you’ve searched for in a crowd appears,
and your unbelieving eyes dissolve in tears.
For this is what love looks like and is
and what it does. “Peace” was what he said,
as a peace like no other pierced the gloom
and descended on the room.

Two Charcoal Fires

In the Gospel of John I noticed a little detail about two charcoal fires.

The first of the two charcoal fires I'd known about for some time. It's that lovely and intimate moment when Jesus cooks breakfast for his disciples on the shore of Lake Galilee after his resurrection:

Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.

When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”
Again, it's a lovely scene. As you likely recall, it's around this charcoal fire where Jesus rehabilitates Peter. Jesus asks Peter three times, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter responds, three times, "Yes Lord, you know I love you." 

Commenters have long noted the sequence of three questions and how this parallels Peter's three denials of Jesus. Three denials are rehabilitated by three affirmations of love. 

But it's not just the number three that links the two accounts! The charcoal fire also connects them. The charcoal fire we find on the shore of Lake Galilee is not the first charcoal fire we encounter in the Gospel of John. There are two charcoal fires in John, and this is the first one we read about, soon after the arrest of Jesus: 
Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man's disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.
Interestingly, it's not just that Jesus walks Peter through a sequence of three affirmations, reversing his three denials. Jesus brings Peter back to the symbolic location of his denial, back to a charcoal fire. But where the first fire was in the cold and dark, surrounded by hostility and danger, the second fire is warm, inviting, safe, and welcomes a coming dawn.

Practicing Jesus: Part 8, "When X, Do Y."

Last post in this series.

As I described in the last post, in Stranger God I unpacked the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux as practices I called Seeing, Stopping, and Approaching. The focus of Stranger God was upon forming us into people of hospitality and welcome. So the practices of Seeing, Stopping, and Approaching were selected and described for that specific spiritual formation outcome.

But after the publication of Stranger God I wanted to find a way of describing the Little Way that had broader applications. For example, how would you describe the Little Way as a practice that forms in us the fruit of the Spirit, virtues like kindness, patience, gentleness, joy, peace, and self-control? 

After a search of the psychological literature, I eventually discovered the research on what are called "implementation intentions." 

When it comes to behavior change, of any sort, we all have goal intentions. "I want X." Every New Year's resolution is a goal intention of this sort. I want to exercise more. I want to pray more. I want to stop smoking. I want to start a garden. I want to learn how to play the guitar. I want to write a novel. I want to lose twenty pounds. 

We make goal intentions all the time. We want many things. But as we all know, by February our New Year's resolutions are often a long list of failures. We need something more effective than goal setting. 

This same issue plagues our spiritual formation efforts. We all want to be more Christlike. I want to be more kind and patient. I want many things when it comes to my spiritual life. But like my New Year's resolutions, these spiritual goals are easily stated but hard to actualize.

Enter the implementation intention. 

An implementation intention is specific sort of goal setting that has two parts. The first part identifies a situational context. A location, time or triggering event/stimulus. The second part specifies a goal-directed behavior, something that you will do that will move you closer toward your aspirational goal. Implementation intentions have a "When X, Do Y" logic. When I'm in this situation, then I will perform this action. 

Implementation intentions work. Research has shown that implementation intentions are effective in changing a wide range of behaviors. Because of this, implementation intentions feature prominently in self-help books like the best-selling Atomic Habits.

The Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux can be described as an implementation intention, an implementation intention for practicing Jesus, an implementation intention for forming the fruit of the Spirit. 

To see this, let's revisit Thérèse's stories of practicing her "little way." When Thérèse had free time she committed to talking to the sisters who were being ignored. When X, Do Y. When Thérèse saw a sister she wanted to avoid approaching, she committed to not detouring around her. When X, Do Y. And finally, when Thérèse was irritated during prayer time by a sister making a noise, she committed to praying a prayer of peace over that noise. When X, Do Y. In every story describing the practice of her "little way" in Story of a Soul, Thérèse describes specific situations ("When X...") and her behavioral commitments in responding to those situations ("...Do Y."). Thérèse didn't just express goal intentions in her memoir ("I want to be kinder."), she described implementation intentions, actual behaviors that directly practiced virtues in daily interpersonal situations. 

In short, the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux can be described as an effective way of "practicing Jesus," as an implementation intention directed at forming in us the fruit of the Spirit. This practice is "the missing spiritual discipline" we've been searching for: an implementation intention focused upon a fruit of the Spirit, a practice that is daily, situational, direct and interpersonal. Concretely, if you want, for example, to be more kind, you need to create an implementation intention to practice kindness. Identify where in your life you experience failures of kindness. What is the location, time or trigger? Having identified your "When X" go on to specify what action you will take in that situation. Will you pause and take breath? Smile? Say a quick prayer? Say something empathetic? This is your "Do Y." With the implementation intention in hand you can begin to "practice Jesus." Every day. You now have a way of getting in your 10,000 hours of practice. 

To conclude, I suspect that all intellectuals have their moments of vanity. We are convinced that if people would just listen to our brilliant ideas the world would be so much better off. Everyone needs to read my book or journal article! 

This series, dear reader, is my moment of vanity. 

In my opinion, there is a vast and gaping hole in our spiritual formation efforts. As we all know, the church is not forming her people very well, if at all. What we are missing is a spiritual discipline that helps us "practice Jesus." A practice that is daily, situational, direct and interpersonal. This "missing spiritual discipline" is the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux, described here as implementation intentions aimed at forming in us the fruit of the Sprit. Call me vain, but if churches committed to this practice I really do think it could change the world. 

And if not the world, I'll settle for it changing me.

Practicing Jesus: Part 7, Practices of Seeing, Stopping, and Approaching

In the last post I described the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux as "the missing spiritual discipline." But I have to admit that this might be a non-obvious claim to readers of Thérèse's memoir Story of a Soul

In Story of a Soul Thérèse mainly shares stories about how she practices her "little way." She doesn't provide a step-by-step account of how to put her "little way" into practice across contexts and situations, which is something we'd need if we wanted to teach and share the Little Way in a spiritual formation curriculum. I've had classes in spiritual formation read Story of a Soul, and frankly, they often can't make heads or tails of it.

Facing this, in Stranger God I attempt to "extract" from Thérèse's stories three practices that can help us "practice Jesus" in everyday life. The practices I describe in Stranger God were selected with radical hospitality in mind, forming us, in the language of Stranger God, to welcome the God who comes to us "in disguise," as we see in Matthew 25, Jesus coming to us in the homeless, hungry, and incarcerated. These Little Way practices I describe as Seeing, Stopping, and Approaching.

Again, you won't see these practices---Seeing, Stopping, and Approaching--in Story of a Soul. Nor was Thérèse telling stories about walking the streets of her city talking with the homeless. But what we do find in Story of a Soul is a posture of intentionality in moving through social spaces. The practices I describe as Seeing, Stopping, and Approaching in Stranger God are inspired by specific stories in Story of a Soul, and they try to capture Thérèse's intentionality and package it in practices that are transferable across social contexts. The goal was is to make the Little Way less inspirational and sentimental and more practical and teachable. If you want the Little Way to become a spiritual discipline you need to be able to coach it.

The practice of Seeing I describe in Stranger God is simply a posture of social mindfulness. The practice of Seeing is paying attention to--seeing, really seeing--the person right in front of you. We observe Thérèse practicing Seeing as she notices the sisters in her convent who were socially marginalized and lonely. Older translations of the Bible use the word "Behold" a lot. "Beholding" is deeper than mere "looking." You can look, but not behold. The practice of Seeing is a practice of beholding others. Consider the failure of the Rich Man in the parable with the poor man Lazarus. Lazarus sits at the Rich Man's gate begging, sores covering his body which the dogs came and licked. Though sitting at his very door, the Rich Man never sees Lazarus, never beholds him. Most of our failures to welcome others begin and end with these failures of beholding. Practices of Seeing try to bring people into view.

The practice Stopping is a variant of of the practice of Seeing. We often don't see people because of the pace of our lives, our hurry and preoccupations. We have agendas and stuff to get done. Consequently, we tend to blow right past people. The practice of Stopping is a practice of slowing and becoming interruptible. We see this in Thérèse's stories of not detouring around sisters in her convent, allowing the chance meeting of a sister to interrupt her. 

Finally, the practice of Approaching is moving toward others, getting out of our social groove and comfort zone. We see this in Thérèse's story of moving toward disagreeable sisters during her free time. The goal here, I point out to audiences, isn't to seek out the most toxic person you can find. The practice of Approaching is, rather, changing social locations, moving toward others rather than away. In my estimation, the practice of Approaching is the most potent of the practices I describe in Stranger God in overcoming what David Leong calls "the social logic of homogeneity." Socially, we are attracted to the same and similar. Like is naturally attracted to like. Conversely, we avoid and step away from the dissimilar and the different. The only way to overcome this wired in social tendency--how strangeness makes us wary--is by adopting an intentional practice of Approaching, stepping away from social sameness into social difference. Practices of Approaching are what led me to the poor, disabled, and incarcerated in my city. Inspired by the Little Way, I became intentional about stepping away from people with PhDs on a college campus (my natural affinity group) toward people in very different social locations. That intentionality, practices of Approaching, has made all the difference.

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: Part 24, Marriage Is Good

We're coming to the end of this series. Today we finish up the final chapter of Louise Perry's The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. There is a Conclusion to the book, which we'll turn to next week.

As Perry wraps up the final chapter of the book, entitled "Marriage Is Good," she returns to the demands of child-rearing upon women. We all know how much it takes to care for and raise children. And here's the irony: If feminists want women to have kids and pursue full-time careers, marriage is even more necessary. Having a domestic partner is critical for female emancipation. Only with a committed partner doing their share on the domestic front will women be free enough to pursue their careers. Beyond the very wealthy who can hire a nanny, a cook, and a maid, most single mothers can't do both things at once, raise kids and pursue a full-time career. 

True, this vision of marriage-as-domestic-partnership demands a shake-up in how many men think about domestic work. There is some work to be done with the modern institution of marriage. Men will need to change diapers, clean toilets, cook meals, and dust baseboards. 

But it should be clear beyond dispute that, where such partnerships are found within marriages, these marriages are very, very good for women. Simply, partners are good for women. 

As Perry writes, reflecting on her needs after giving birth:

If we want to keep that maternal bond intact, then the only solution is for another person to step in during these times of vulnerability and do the tasks needed to keep a household warm and fed. Perhaps we could call that person a spouse. Perhaps we could call their legal and emotional bond a marriage.

That observation brings Perry to her final paragraphs and recommendation:

I have just one piece of advice to offer in this chapter, and you've probably already guessed what it will be. So, here it is: get married. And do your best to stay married. Particularly if you have children, and particularly if those children are still young...

The critics of marriage are right to say that it has historically been used as a vehicle for the control of women by men, and they're right to point out that most marriages do not live up to a romantic ideal. They're right, too, that monogamous, lifelong marriage is in a sense 'unnatural' in that it is not the human norm. The marriage system that prevailed in the West up until recently was not perfect, nor was it easy for most people to conform to, since it demanded high levels of tolerance and self-control. Where the critics go wrong is in arguing that there is any better system. There isn't.

Practicing Jesus: Part 6, The Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux

Summarizing the last post, there's a huge hole in our spiritual formation efforts, a ''missing spiritual discipline." What would fill this hole is a spiritual formation practice that is daily, situational, direct and interpersonal. 

If that's the case, where might we find such a practice?

In my book Stranger God I describe my search for this practice, the "missing spiritual discipline." The Holy Grail of Spiritual Formation! 

After the publication of Unclean I was spending a lot of time consulting with churches concerning missional hospitality, welcoming our neighbors and the God who comes to us in strangers. Not surprisingly, after launching their hospitality initiatives churches were stumbling over the sociopsychological triggers that trip us all up. Difference makes us feel awkward, uncomfortable, hesitant, wary, and even afraid. We also bump into our prejudices and biases, both conscious and unconscious. 

You can vividly see the "hole" we're facing here in our spiritual formation efforts. Facing these interpersonal obstacles in churches, pastors might preach a sermon about the Good Samaritan. They might ask their people to pray for their city. Lovely and important things to do. But sermons and prayers aren't directly stepping into awkward and uncomfortable interpersonal spaces. We can listen to sermons and pray for our neighbors while keeping firmly in our social lanes, never encountering people who both challenge and bless us in their difference. 

So after Unclean churches kept asking me, "What can we do to form ourselves into people of kindness and welcome? Especially in those spaces where we find ourselves pulling back, behaviorally and emotionally?" At the time, I didn't have a great answer.

The answer I had offered at the conclusion of Unclean was partial and inadequate. Like many in the spiritual formation conversation, I had pointed to liturgy, Eucharistic practices in particular. To be sure, liturgy is powerful. And I think Eucharistic practices are an especially potent tool for spiritual formation. Many churches, nudged by Unclean, have found that weekly and intentional liturgies around the Table have profoundly shaped their shared life and missional imagination. Still, a Eucharistic liturgy is only once a week for a few minutes. There is not enough "time on task" to form us. There's also a problem with space, place, and social location. As a liturgy within the church, Eucharist, as a practice, isn't directly moving me out into uncomfortable interpersonal spaces.

And so, I started the hunt for the Holy Grail, the missing spiritual formation practice. I scoured the spiritual formation literature and read the biographies and memoirs of saints who displayed radical hospitality. Dorothy Day was my breakthrough. If you know about the life and witness of Dorothy Day, you know there's no better example of what it looks like to both extend and receive the welcome of Christ on the margins of society. People would make pilgrimages to her Catholic Worker house of hospitality in New York to find her sitting at a table drinking a cup of coffee with a heron-addicted prostitute. Many have described Dorothy Day as "America's Mother Teresa." In fact, when Mother Teresa visited the US she made it a point to visit Dorothy Day. When you inspire someone like Mother Teresa, well, that tells you something.

In becoming a student of the life of Dorothy Day, I encountered Thérèse of Lisieux and her "little way." Day described herself as a follower of the Little Way. She even wrote a biography about Thérèse. I also discovered that Thérèse and her Little Way had also profoundly shaped the life of Mother Teresa.

Obviously, all this caught my attention. What was this "little way" that had shaped both Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, two of the great witnesses of Christian love and charity for "the least of these"? Could it be that the Little Way was "the missing spiritual discipline" I'd been looking for? Was this the Holy Grail?

As I describe in Stranger God, the answer was yes. The Little Way was "the missing spiritual discipline" I'd been looking for, a practice that is daily, situational, direct and interpersonal. To be sure, there are many "takes" about Thérèse and her Little Way, many commentators and interpreters. Most treatments describe the Little Way as a path of humble service and fidelity, rejecting grand and ambitious pursuits (professional and spiritual) to embrace the "smallness" of my life in doing good to those God has given me. But I'd argue that this perspective about the Little Way, while important and lovely, misses what I take to be the focus of the Little Way. I think the Little Way is best described as a spiritual formation practice that shapes us in the crucible of daily life as we face and intentionally step into challenging interpersonal situations.

For example, in her memoir Story of a Soul Thérèse describes her Little Way as an intentional practice of approaching, to share a kind smile and some conversation, with the sisters in her convent who were difficult to get along with. Relatedly, she describes the Little Way as a practice of not detouring around the sisters she would rather have avoided. She also describes the Little Way as mastering her irritation when a sister makes annoying noises during their shared quiet time of prayer. As you can see, these examples are less about humbly embracing our "small" life than intentional practices aimed at busting up unthinking social habits to get us out of our comfort zones. The Little Way is also about intentionally practicing patience with people who are driving us crazy. The Little Way isn't about embracing a small and humble life. The Little Way is about moving through your day with a spiritual formation agenda, the way Thérèse moved through her day, from practicing patience when facing irritation to moving toward people we'd rather avoid.

Simply put, what I saw in the Little Way was a practice that forms in us the fruit of the Spirit, a daily, situational, direct and interpersonal practice that forms in us virtues of patience, gentleness, kindness, and self-control. More, as seen in the lives of Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, the Little Way is a practice that forms lives characterized by radical welcome and hospitality.

In the next two posts, I'll share a bit more about what all this looks like.

Practicing Jesus: Part 5, The Missing Spiritual Discipline

To summarize, over the last four posts we've discussed four mistakes we make in regards to spiritual disciplines. These mistakes are:

  1. Treating spiritual formation as an educational problem, trying to teach our way into Christlikeness.

  2. Assuming the Christian life is facing a series of ethical dilemmas and asking ourselves "What would Jesus do?", rather than preparing for dealing with days filled with emotional triggers.

  3. A chronic indirectness in our spiritual formation efforts, where intimacy with God is pursued but we never turn to practice interpersonal and emotional virtues in daily life.

  4. Assuming that acts of service provide sufficient daily practice and "time on task" in acquiring interpersonal and emotional virtues in daily life.

Each of these problems add up and point to a gaping hole in the spiritual formation literature, a hole that sits smack in the middle of spiritual formation books, the guidance of spiritual directors, seminary syllabi, and spiritual formation efforts within the church. We can call this hole "the missing spiritual discipline."

Examining the contours of this hole in our spiritual formation efforts gives us a list of what "the missing spiritual discipline" must provide if it is to fill the gap for us. The spiritual discipline we are looking for must possess these features:

A practice that is...

  • daily

  • situational

  • direct

  • interpersonal

Let's walk through the list to show how such a practice fills the gap.

First, this is a practice. It's not an educational intervention. This is something we do, actions we take.

Second, this this a daily practice. This is something we wake up to each day, Sunday through Saturday. This daily engagement provides us with time on task, allowing us to acquire those 10,000 hours of practice which shape our automatic responses. This is a practice similar to practicing a musical instrument every day. 

Third, the practice is situational. If we're practicing how to deal with emotional triggers, we have to practice at the specific times and places where we struggle. If, for example, you're struggling with impatience with a particular person in your life (say a co-worker or a family member) you need to practice patience with that specific person. Being patient elsewhere doesn't form you where you're struggling. It's like a smoker not smoking during a movie in a non-smoking theatre. Any smoker can resist not smoking during the show. Self-control in that context isn't the issue. Our battles in acquiring virtue are not vague and generic, but contextual and situational. Focusing on this situational specificity helps us overcome the chronic indirectness of most spiritual formation efforts. We need a practice that helps us right here and right now where we struggle and fail. 

Fourth, the practice has to be direct. That is, if you're wanting to be more kind the practice has to be practicing kindness, directly. You're not praying or fasting, you're being kind. To be sure, you should keep praying and fasting, but practicing kindness has to involve practicing kindness. 

And finally, the practice has to be interpersonal. This is obviously implied in everything already shared, but we make the point separately to highlight that this practice is a face to face practice that shapes how we treat and respond to people, especially the person standing right in front of me. There are many spiritual practices that demand we retreat from social life, taking us off into the contemplative "desert," but we need a practice that forms us within the crucible of daily life with others. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, we share "life together." We need a practice that forms us within and for this intimate and difficult social space. 

Practicing Jesus: Part 4, The Fourth Mistake of Spiritual Formation

The point I made in the last post, the third mistake of spiritual formation, is a chronic indirectness that haunts most spiritual formation efforts. We tend to focus on achieving intimacy with God--through prayer, Sabbath, liturgy, Bible study and fasting--and routinely fail to get around to directly practicing interpersonal and emotional virtues. We desire to be kind, for example, but don't put in 10,000 hours of kindness practice.

Now, a counterargument here is that calls for spiritual disciplines do recognize this issue and place interpersonal practices before us. And that brings us to the fourth mistake of spiritual formation.

For example, in his classic treatment Celebration of Disciplines Richard Foster does try to address the indirectness of the "Trickle Down Theory" of spiritual formation by grouping the spiritual disciplines into "inward" and "outward" disciplines. The "inward" disciplines, like prayer and fasting, draw us inward seeking greater intimacy with God. (Sorting out the geometric metaphors here, Foster's "inward" maps onto my "upward" in the "Trickle Down Theory" I described in the last post.) Foster, aware that these "inward" disciplines leave out the interpersonal aspects of the spiritual life, describes "outward" disciplines as well. For example, an "outward" spiritual discipline is service.

If you know the spiritual disciplines literature, you know that service is the general recommendation offered to address the interpersonal gap in spiritual formation. Service is both interpersonal and direct, seeming to address the issues I raised in the last post. If so, doesn't adding service to the spiritual formation curriculum address the problem of Trickle Down Theory?

The answer is, no, it does not. 

To be clear, service is a wonderful spiritual practice. In many ways I consider my ministry out at the prison to be mainly an act of service. I see myself as serving the spiritual, emotional, and relational needs of the inmates. I make myself available to them. And this act of service forms me. Just read any of my books and you'll see that.

And yet, acts of service don't get at the critical issue I described in the last post, handling emotional triggers and practicing better automatic responses. Many acts of service don't have a direct, face-to-face interpersonal aspect. For example, if I rake up the leaves in your yard that is a very kind thing to do. But I'm out in the yard alone. A lot of service activities have this lonely aspect. And group service projects, while done with a group, often lack a direct engagement with the person being helped. 

A related problem is that many service activities also tend to be scheduled activities, often spaced far apart. If I volunteer some service hours once a month in my town, that's a lovely thing to do, but it's still just once a month. Some time-on-task is lacking here.

Finally, who isn't sweet and lovely during a scheduled service activity? It's easy to be kind for the few hours we gather with friends or church to do some good deed in our town. There's a lot of social demand and expectation to be sweet during a service project. You're expected to be kind. So it's easy to put on a face and play the role. But the critical issue facing spiritual formation is being kind when you're not doing a service project, when you're not under the spotlight. The challenge of kindness is being kind at work and at home. That is where our failures of kindness show up, in the crucible of daily life, not on a weekend service project with your church.

In short, while lovely, service isn't practice. This is the fourth mistake of spiritual formation, assuming service is practice. Acts of service are vital for Christian formation, but service projects don't help us practice the reflexive responses we desire--the virtues of holy automaticity--in the face of interpersonal and emotional triggers. A weekend service project doesn't help me practice kindness when I experience a flash of anger with co-worker or impatience with my family. Service doesn't get me the 10,000 hours of practice I need to become more Christlike in my responses to others.

Practicing Jesus: Part 3, The Third Mistake of Spiritual Formation

To review, the first mistake of spiritual formation is approaching it as an educational problem, trying to teach your way into being Christlike. 

The second mistake is approaching spiritual formation as a Trolley Problem, assuming life is a series of ethical dilemmas where we ask ourselves "What would Jesus do?" 

In discussing these problems we've pointed toward practices that form us and instill habits. At this point we all know what comes next in the conversation, a discussion of spiritual disciplines and practices. But that conversation brings us to the third mistake of spiritual formation.

Ever since Richard Foster published his seminal Celebration of Discipline in 1978, spiritual disciplines have been on everyone's radar screen. This is very well-trod territory. Any moderately serious Christian, if asked, can name some spiritual disciplines: Prayer, fasting, Bible study, worship, Sabbath, rule of life. You can also drill down into particular disciplines. When it comes to prayer we can talk about structured prayer, breath prayer, meditation, the prayer of examen, contemplative prayer, silence, and healing prayer. 

The great majority of these practices focus upon our vertical relationship with God rather than our horizontal relationships with each other. The goal of spiritual disciplines is to draw us closer to God. The assumption is that as I grow closer to God this intimacy will cause me to be more kind, gentle and loving toward others. I call this the "Trickle Down Theory" of spiritual formation.

This "Trickle Down Theory" is the third mistake we make about spiritual formation, the assumption that pursuing intimacy with God through spiritual disciplines reliably and consistency impacts our interpersonal behavior. 

Now, to be very clear, I'm not denying the profound need for spiritual disciplines that focus upon God. My day is structured around such practices. Nor am I denying that a practice like contemplative prayer has impact upon how I treat others.

The problem I am highlighting here, though, is a chronic indirectness in how many pursue spiritual formation, especially in regards to virtues like the fruits of the Spirit. For example, if you want to become more kind you could pray about that. And I think those prayers will be helpful. You could also do a Bible study about kindness. And that would be helpful as well. But both of those approaches are indirect. My point is this: If you want to be kind, why don't you just practice being kind? Interpersonally and directly?

The third mistake of spiritual formation is how a chronic indirectness haunts most of our efforts in forming ourselves into Christlikeness. When in comes to interpersonal (e.g., kindness, gentleness) and emotional (e.g., self-control, patience) virtues we keep directing our time, energy and focus vertically, toward God, and never get around to focusing on the horizontal, interpersonal dimension, doing the thing directly. For example, revisiting the point about practice from the last post, if you want to be more kind, if you want kindness to become an automatic holy habit, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practicing kindness. That's not to say prayer can't help with this, but 10,000 hours of practicing kindness is the only way to acquire this virtue.

We talk a ton about things like fasting, prayer, liturgy, Bible study, and Sabbath, but what is missing from almost every spiritual formation effort is direct, interpersonal practice of the interpersonal and emotional virtues. It's pretty simple. If you want to acquire a habit, you have to do the thing, directly. 

To form the fruits of the Spirit you have to practice. Yet nobody does.

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: Part 23, "Votes for Women, Chastity for Men"

We continue to reflect upon marriage in Chapter 8 of Louise Perry's The Case Against the Sexual Revolution.

If you've followed this series you know that the primary analytical tool Perry uses in criticizing the sexual revolution are the adaptive asymmetries men and women faced throughout our evolutionary history. These particular reproductive pressures produced distinctive sexual psychologies between the sexes. Given the risks and costs of pregnancy and child-rearing in primitive ecosystems, women evolved sexual preferences for a "high investment mate," privileging emotional intimacy and relational fidelity. Males, by contrast, facing little adaptive cost for sex, evolved a sexual psychology which privileged sexual access and opportunity, an openness to casual sex with multiple partners across the lifespan. 

Given these differences, Perry's argument has been that the sexual revolution has been good for only one of the sexes. The sexual revolution demands that women "have sex like men," asking them to mortify their evolved cravings for emotional intimacy and relational fidelity. This leads Perry to make the claim that the sexual revolution, and the feminism which supports it, deeply patriarchal. Women are being asked to stuff their desires in order to satisfy the insatiable sexual demands of men: Lots and lots of females readily available to have casual, meaningless sex.

If this is so, what would the alternative be? 

Well, the alternative would be for men to center and privilege the sexual desires of women. This would mean turning away from casual, meaningless sex toward sex that is connected to emotional intimacy and relational fidelity. In short, sex that is re-connected to marriage. 

If sex were re-connected to marriage, or at least emotional intimacy and long-term caring and faithful commitments, it would be males who would have to mortify their sexual desires. This reversal is at the heart of Perry's argument. Hook up culture is good for men and bad for women. So what would our sexual culture look like if the needs and desires of women were centered, elevated, and privileged? It would look like a world where sex was emotionally meaningful and reliably connected to long-term commitment, care, and faithfulness. Women, Perry argues, would much prefer to live in that world than the world created by the sexual revolution. It would be a world where men started mortifying their desires to put the desires of women first. 

Such a world, however, demands male continence. Perhaps ironically, given their support of the sexual revolution, feminists have long recognized that male continence is good for women. As Perry recounts, a woman suffragist slogan was "Votes for Women! Chastity for Men!" And two of the chapters of Mary Wollstonecraft's feminist manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Women were devoted to the chronic promiscuity and infidelities of men. 

All of which raises the question: Where in the modern world are young men learning the virtues of continence? Where in the modern world are young men being called toward relational fidelity and marriage?

The answer: Nowhere. 

So here's a provocative take: Purity culture in the church might bear better fruit if it was directed at men. Not that I want young men feeling guilty about sex, just that male continence is going to play a critical role in creating a sexual culture that is actually good for women. And I think Christian men should care about things that are good for women.

A related issue here, since we're talking about male continence and putting the needs of women first, is Gabrielle Blair asking men to ejaculate responsibly

Practicing Jesus: Part 2, The Second Mistake of Spiritual Formation

In Part 1 I pointed us toward the first mistake we make in regards to spiritual formation, namely treating spiritual formation and Christian discipleship as an educational problem. 

In this post we turn our attention toward a second mistake we make in approaching spiritual formation. 

The second mistake we make about spiritual formation is related to the first mistake, but is a bit different. We could call this the "WWJD Mistake," as in "What Would Jesus Do?" I also describe the mistake to my students this way: "Being like Jesus isn't a Trolly Problem."

At the heart of this mistake is the belief that "being like Jesus" involves making good moral choices in life, successfully navigating a series of ethical decisions. We imagine the Christian life to be a moral journey where we reach, from time to time, a moral crossroads. At this moral crossroads we must make a Christ-like decision. We stand at the fork in the road and ask ourselves, "What would Jesus do?" Having made that assessment, we make the choice we think Jesus would have made. The journey continues until we reach the next moral crossroads.

Basically, we think following Jesus involves solving a series of "Trolly Problems" that life throws at us. By "Trolly Problem" I mean those bedeviling ethical conundrums students debate in a college ethics classes. At the heart of these debates is the pressing question: "What's the right thing to do here?" That's what we think following Jesus is like, facing moments in life and asking ourselves, "What's the right thing to do here?"

To be sure, life is filled with momentous moments of great moral and ethical import. I don't deny the fact that we find ourselves throughout life standing at moral crossroads. But there are two issues we need to face here.

First of all, the nitty gritty of our moral lives doesn't happen quite this deliberatively and slowly. Life comes at us fast, so fast that we have automatic, emotional, and unconscious reactions to events before we even have time to process what is happening. When I lose my tempter it's not because I'm standing at the moral crossroads contemplating if I will choose to be patient or impatient. I just, as we say, "lose" my temper. And by "losing" my temper I mean that I had a quick, emotional reaction. Before I even notice that I am standing at a moral crossroads the game is already over. The horse of anger already out of the barn. I never got a chance to stop and ask myself, "What would Jesus do?" As I describe all this to my students, "The challenge of being like Jesus isn't about solving a series of ethical puzzles; it's about being ambushed by a series of emotional triggers."

There's a second issue in play at the moral crossroads as well. A lot of what will determine our fate at the moral crossroads, when we find ourselves standing there, depends almost entirely upon the sort of person we've become when we arrive at that fatal moment. You can arrive at the critical moment of your life story selfish, weak, sick, delusional, and scared. Or, you can arrive at that decisive moment full of love, strong, healthy, honest, and brave. The choices we make today were actually made a long, long time ago.

Both of these issues--life comes at us fast nullifying conscious decision-making, and our choices today were actually made yesterday--highlight the role of virtue in Christian spiritual formation. We can think of virtue as a holy habit, or what I call holy automaticity

When life comes at you fast you don't have time to solve the ethical Trolly Problem. Your first, automatic, and instinctive response has to be right. Holy automaticity is responding with knee-jerk kindness, patience, gentleness and self-control in the face of the emotional trigger. Holiness is not a choice, it's an instinct, a reflex. 

So, how do you acquire holy reflexes? The same why you acquire any automatic, reflexive skill. You want to play a guitar? You have to practice. You want to drive a golf ball long and straight? You have to practice. Practice is how we acquire automatic behavior patterns. So if you want to automate something expertly you have to put in the proverbial 10,000 hours of practice. Being like Jesus is no different. It takes lots and lots of practice.

This issue sits at the heart of our spiritual formation failures. We keep telling our people to ask themselves, "What would Jesus do?" That's fine, but where are we putting in the 10,000 hours of practice?

Practicing Jesus: Part 1, The First Mistake of Spiritual Formation

I teach a class at ACU called "Psychology and Christianity" where I explore intersections between psychology and Christian faith and practice. In the class I have a unit about "the psychology of spiritual formation." This series will share some of that material.

I start the unit by sharing that our spiritual formation efforts typically make four mistakes.

The first mistake is the mistake highlighted by the work of James Smith in his books Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love.

Smith's work has been widely read, so many readers likely know the main points. Smith makes the point that our spiritual formation efforts tend to be overly, even excessively, education-based. We're formed into the image of Jesus through knowledge acquisition.  This is the first mistake of spiritual formation, treating discipleship as an educational issue.

We see evidence of this mistake everywhere. We go to Sunday School. We attend Bible classes. We engage in Bible study. We listen on Sunday to the pastor's teaching. We read lots of Christian books.

Beyond this, there's Christian Education, Inc. Christian homeschooling. K-12 Christian private schools. Christian Higher Eduction, like my university. The key feature in each of these endeavors is making study of the Bible an integral part the curriculum. The homeschool curriculum teaches a "biblical worldview." The Christian private school has required Bible classes.

I don't want to throw all of this effort under the bus. I work, obviously, at a Christian university. I write Christian books. And I teach a Bible class at my church. I think there's a lot of good these things do. And yet, there are some limitations with this approach toward spiritual formation that need to be squarely confronted and remediated.

The critical issue can be easily stated: Does mastery of Biblical and theological knowledge reliably produce the fruit of the Spirit in your life?

As an example, take one of the big issues in the Christian homeschooling movement, instilling in children a "biblical worldview." A big part of these curricula is teaching Creation science to rebut the theory of Darwinian evolution. For this post, I don't care much what you think about the Creation vs. Evolution debate. I want to, rather, draw attention to the issue of spiritual formation. Let's say I grant a homeschooling cohort a win on teaching Creation science, that they are 100% effective in instilling in their children the belief that Charles Darwin was wrong, and have equipped their children to win arguments with proponents of evolution when they head off to college. Let's say this pursuit is 100% successful. Here, then, is my question: How does having a literal reading of Genesis make you any more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled?

The answer is pretty clear: a literal reading of Scripture doesn't reliably produce Christian character. Being able to prove Charles Darwin wrong doesn't make you a loving human being. And yet, consider how much effort is put into that very sort of effort! A deeply confused vision of spiritual formation reigns among many Christians and churches.

Here's a different way to approach the same problem. I'll ask my class, "Can you be a psychopath and get an A in your required Bible classes?" And answer is, of course you can. The point of the question is to highlight that Christian discipleship isn't an intellectual problem. A psychopath can have a very high IQ and get all A's in their Bible classes. What's wrong with a psychopath isn't cognitive but affective, a lack of empathy for others. The example of the psychopath is provocative, but it makes the point very clear: You can know all the answers for your Bible test and still have some serious heart problems.

Here's yet another way I make the point to my class. "How many of you," I ask, "have heard of the Parable of the Good Samaritan?" You can ask the question of your own church. Everyone in my class raises their hand. As, I expect, everyone would as well in your church. I push further, "Does anyone need a refresher?" No one needs a refresher. The story is famous. "Does anyone need to be reminded about the point of the story?" No one needs reminding, we know the point of the story, that we need to be good neighbors and not "pass by" people in need. "And yet," I conclude, "how many of us still struggle to be good neighbors to the people we encounter in life?" General acknowledgement that we could be better neighbors. 

I bring home the point: "Our struggle in following the Parable of the Good Samaritan is not an educational problem. Assuming so has been our mistake. You already know the answers. Everyone here can get an A on the Good Samaritan test. And if that's true, we have to face the music: we can't teach our way out of this problem."

On Viral Oscillations in a Polarized World

Readers of this blog may or may not know that I also host this blog on Substack. Readers of this blog on Substack may or may not know that the newsletter you receive is hosted at my original home on blogspot

The reasons for this redundancy don't make a lot of sense. I was happy to keep blogging in nichey obscurity on blogspot until Blogger notified users that it wasn't going to support the email subscription function anymore. Knowing that a lot of readers followed the blog via email, I went in search of a solution. The very inefficient idea I came up with was, "Hey, I'll just copy and paste this stuff into a Substack newsletter." Substack, you see, being built around an email subscription platform. 

And so, this blog came to exist in two parallel digital spaces. I know it doesn't make any sense. I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Anyway, being on Substack has given me access to some analytical information that I've found fascinating to watch. Specifically, since Substack is built around email subscriptions you can keep easy track of when people Subscribe and Unsubscribe from your newsletter. You can watch that line go up and down, up and down, noting what sorts of posts trigger that movement. And here's what I've found watching my subscriptions on Substack:

My email subscriptions wobble. 

This wobble is due to what I'll call "viral oscillations in a polarized world." 

To start, we all know what goes viral. Posts go viral when they hit that sweet spot of polarization. Viral posts perfectly capture the reigning sentiments of either the cultural Right or Left. Occasionally, for example, I write a post that criticizes something on the Right or the Left. These posts, predictably, get shared by readers. These posts have an "edge" or "bite" that people want to share. A post that criticizes the Right gets shared by readers on the Left. As that post gets seen and shared by others on the Left, my email subscriptions jump up. New, left-leaning readers start following the blog. 

A few posts later, I'll write a post that criticizes the Left. This post resonates with my readers on the Right, who share it online. This causes Right-leaning readers to come and subscribe. My subscriptions go up. 

If you're a regular reader, you can see the trouble brewing for these new subscribers. They aren't going to get the content they think they've signed up for. Subscribers on the Right, who showed up because my viral Left-critical post, don't like it when I turn around and criticize them. That's not what they signed up for.

In the same way, Subscribers on the Left, who showed up because of my viral Right-critical post, don't like it when I turn around and criticize them. That's not what they signed up for.

And so, these new Subscribers eventually unsubscribe. Like I said, my subscriptions wobble. My subscriptions oscillate due to the psychological dynamics of virality in a polarized world. Posts only go viral if they have a "contagious" aspect to them, and that virality is typically rooted in Left/Right polarization, a post that serves to advance some cultural narrative among either liberals or conservatives. Viral posts are "fighting words" that are only heard in an echo chamber. 

Trouble is, I feel like I'm fighting pretty much everyone. When you subscribe to this blog due to a viral post you're not getting who you think you're getting. If you're a new reader, you're going to be on a learning curve. You will slowly find out who I am, and when you do there's a good chance you won't like me. More likely, though, is that I'll just start to bore you. Most of what I write about each day is quirky and idiosyncratic and rarely fits with what's currently trending on Twitter.  

So, to all new Substack readers who show up thinking I'm on their side of the culture wars: My sincerest apologies, but I'm not your huckleberry. The post that drew you here isn't likely to be a reliable clue about what I'm up to day in and day out. Of course, I'm happy you showed up and subscribed. Welcome! But I also understand when it's time for us to part ways. My subscriptions do have a tendency to wobble.