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C.S. Lewis’ Cure for Our Partisan Venom

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I can tell you right now this is going to be the best post I’ve ever written. Because most of this article comes directly from C.S. Lewis. What follows is from Lewis’ famous preface to the 4th Century church father Athanasius’ book On the Incarnation. That, plus a few words of my own clumsily explaining why Lewis’ words here could cure our hyper-partisan and heavily-jackassed culture.

“Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook… Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides are usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions… None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books… The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes… Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”

See what I mean? Classic C.S.! Here we are, Clive says, fighting against each other, and assuming that we couldn’t be further apart in our positions. But when given a chance to compare our “polar opposite” positions to an old book, we find that our “opposites” don’t look as far apart by comparison.

C.S. Lewis said we only increase our blindness by reading modern books. Also read old books, he said: “They made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes…”

So what’s the point? That reading books from a different age allows us to see with different eyes. Sure, those “different eyes” are as flawed as our own, but they’re still different. As Lewis says, “They made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.”

Do you see a connection here to the sources of our information? Read 100 Fox News articles and while they’ll differ from each other, they’ll all share many assumptions. Most of them the President will praise and a few he’ll ridicule, but they’re all within a certain stream. If you switch over to CNN, you’ll hear just as many errors. But they’ll be different errors. And they’ll differ from each other but they’ll share common assumptions. You can go a certain length toward healing the wound of one bias by viewing it light of another bias. And it’s exactly here that Clive Staples’ advice would be good to heed. This effect is multiplied when you read material from different cultures and different centuries. All full of mistakes, but the non-overlap of the mistakes helps us get a clearer picture.

Then Lewis says something even more fascinating:

“We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the division of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity… That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then.”

This is the surprising discovery of choosing to leave our echo chambers: we have more in common than we would dare to guess! And it’s small of us to insist that our differences are insurmountable.

And now for my favorite part. Good old C. describes the friendly fire you’ll receive from people in the echo chamber once you start seeing the essential unity we share (he knew this well):

“Once you are well soaked in it [the unity across the ages], if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valley, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.”

Do we all know it’s a good thing to exit our echo chambers and listen to what other voices are telling us? I hope we do. But one thing you can count on: Talk about a Fox News article in front of your CNN friends and you’re in trouble. Quote Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in front of a Republican and you’d better brace yourself. Mention Richard Rohr to an Evangelical and prepare for a Reformation-centric lecture. Bring up Rob Bell to almost anyone and get ready for an eye roll.

We’re so partisan on so many fronts that we’ve lost the ability to listen to other voices. You have to agree with me that we’re all extremely biased. Right? We are encamped, but there are people traveling all around. Listening doesn’t require the abandonment of convictions. Loving doesn’t mean compromise.

We need to listen to, spend time with, and mutually love and serve people who are different than us. And to Lewis’ specific point, we could all stand to learn from those who came centuries before us. Our differences are more petty, more quixotic, than our small perspectives can imagine.

If We Cared More, We’d Fight Less

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You might think we fight so much because we all care too much. But I’m convinced it’s the opposite. And it’s a Kierkegaard quote that makes me think this. In one of his journals, he wrote:

“What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not about what I must know… It is a question of understanding my destiny, of seeing what God really wants me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. And what use here would it be if I were to discover a so-called objective truth, or if I worked my way through the philosophers’ systems and were able to call them all to account on request, point out inconsistencies in every single circle? …What use would it be if truth were to stand there before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I acknowledged it or not, and inducing an anxious shudder rather than trusting devotion? Certainly I won’t deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that one can also be influenced by it, but then it must be taken up alive in me, and this is what I now see as the main point. It is this my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water.”

Kierkegaard: “What I really need is to be clear about what I am to do, not about what I must know…to find a truth which is for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”

Kierkegaard makes me wonder if a major problem in our discourteous theological debates is that we don’t care enough. Maybe that sounds crazy. Our debates seem passionate. The level of disagreement and our unwillingness to budge or consider where someone else is coming from seem to be symptoms of caring too much. But I wonder…

Maybe our problem is that we treat the truth as a thing that “stands there before us, cold and naked.” In this paradigm, the truth is something purely external, something set off to the side. It can be seen, acknowledged, assented to, but it’s not within us, doing the difficult work of transforming us. If the truth is like a list of rules printed out and displayed on a wall, then it can be applied and wielded legalistically. Weaponistically. In this model, we look at the truth externally as we sit around referencing “common sense” and criticizing everyone because “only an idiot could see things differently.”

Here is precisely where Kierkegaard’s pursuit could help us so much. Because truth is not meant merely to produce an “anxious shudder” within us. It’s meant to produce “trusting devotion.” It’s not about finding the cold, dead list of words that we will judge everyone by. It’s about finding a truth that so shapes our internal lives that it is true objectively, and also subjectively. It is true in reality, but—significantly—it is also true FOR ME. That’s not relativism, that’s heart-appropriated, deep-seated ownership of the truth. It’s the refusal to be a “hearer of the Word” only, but rather a “doer of the Word” (see James 1:22).

What if we stopped policing comments and diving into debates over matters where the truth has not so purchased our souls that we are being shaped by it at the deepest level? What if we disciplined ourselves to have fewer opinions and instead threw ourselves into growing more passionate for the realities of Jesus and his gospel?

“I suspect that much of the vitriol we spew and encounter over theological debates comes from a deep-seated insecurity.”

I honestly think this would change the Church. I suspect that much of the vitriol we spew and encounter over theological debates comes from a deep-seated insecurity. We’re not confident in our view of the truth, we’re worried that someone else is going to see things differently or devalue our perspective, so we lash out because we’re afraid a simple explanation of our beliefs won’t be enough. But so what if it’s not enough? Why do we need everyone to agree with us? The answer is that we don’t. If the truth matters so much to us in a certain area that it has changed and is changing us, we can share that truth winsomely without the desperation and aggression that characterizes the fearful.

I have always loved a certain line in Francis Schaeffer’s book Art and the Bible. After detailing the biblical case for making art that doesn’t need to be overtly religious, he says “When you begin to understand this sort of thing, suddenly you can begin to breathe, and all the terrible pressure that has been put on us by making art something less than spiritual suddenly begins to disappear. And with this truth comes beauty and with this beauty a freedom before God.” He’s talking to artists, but I think it fits here as well. When we begin to see the ways a certain truth is true not just in general, but specifically in me, then there comes the freedom of confidence and security.

We need to start caring more so we can start fighting less.

Swing the Pendulum!

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If the pendulum on a clock doesn’t swing, then the time on the clock doesn’t move forward. Pendulums are all about motion.

In the Church, in theology, and in society as a whole we tend to be pendulum swingers. We get upset when we see an overemphasis or an overreaction. So we begin tugging back against the pendulum to solve the issue. Before long, we’ve overcorrected and someone else has to swing the pendulum back again. This ticking and tocking marks the movement of history.

Think of Martin Luther and Reformation. The Reformers were worried the Catholic church was worshipping statues and paintings. So when the Protestants gained control of a church, they would often pull the statues, paintings, and other priceless artifacts out of the church and literally burn or smash them. In this way, they earned the title of “iconoclasts.” 

Looking back, Francis Schaeffer explains, “To some of us the statues and paintings…may be art objects, and perhaps we wish that the people of the Reformation had taken these works and put them in a warehouse for a hundred years or so. Then they could have been brought out and put in a museum. But at that moment of history this would have been too much to ask! To the men and women of that time, these were images to worship…Thus, in the pressure of that historic moment, they sometimes destroyed the images.”

Swinging the pendulum was their real-time response to something they saw as a huge problem within the Church. We could come up with thousands of examples without breaking a sweat: One group forbids drinking, so another swings the pendulum back towards boozy culture. One group begins to equate lack of swearing with loving Jesus, so another starts “swearing for Jesus.” Some get too emotional in worship so others swing things towards the cerebral. We’re constantly swinging the pendulum back and forth. Correcting and overcorrecting.

But Pendulum swinging gets a bad rap.

Our goal seems to be arriving at some perfectly balanced equilibrium where everyone knows precisely how much to emphasize each thing. No one needs to be challenged. Everything just hums along, moving forward without any problems. It sounds nice, right?

Or does it?

Think of the scene in A Wrinkle in Time when the kids find themselves in a world of precise uniformity. Suburban kids all stand around their suburban cul-de-sac bouncing their balls precisely in time until their mothers come out in unison and call their kids in for lunch. It’s super creepy! Why? Because they value conformity above all else, which makes everyone mindless. Every person in this town is essentially a zombie—they look alive, but they’re really not.

A Wrinkle In Time GIF by Walt Disney Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

Motion is a defining characteristic of living things. No motion, no life. So if we get to a place where we’re no longer moving or growing or changing, we’re living in a dead zone. Think of what makes a dead church dead: Everything is always done the same way by the same people over and over again. 

A pendulum gets swung because a generation looks at what their parents did and decides course correction is necessary. So they gather their creative energies and work towards change. This movement ensures that the next generation will have to step in and correct some things as well. But this is healthy. 

Because what we really want is for each generation to encounter Jesus anew. We want them to stand face to face with him. To experience him. To ask what he wants with them. And as they do this, we want them to strike out with purpose and vision.

“A real encounter with Jesus will lead each generation to interact with him in ways the previous generations never thought necessary. And that’s how we maintain life.”

It’s easy to think that the version of Christianity we’ve arrived at is the final word. We’ve finally debugged the whole thing. This is the final draft. But just like a designer’s saved finals (Project_final_final_final_final_v5.pdf), there is always more work to be done. That’s because Jesus is living. And a real encounter with Jesus will lead each generation to interact with him in ways the previous generations never thought necessary. And that’s how we maintain life within the Church and within our own hearts.

So when I see a movement within the Church and think it’s swinging the pendulum too far, I need to remember to get excited. Work is happening! Jesus is on the move! And this swing means there will be fresh work ahead. 

Don Freaking Quixote

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In Miguel De Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote, the eponymous hero is a knight on a quest. He is brave, chivalrous, and relentless. You won’t find a more committed knight in any of the classical literature. But there’s one problem: the entirety of his knightly career is misguided.

Whenever he engages in brave combat, he is always confused and always mistaken. In one famous episode he charges ahead to attack a windmill with his lance, believing the windmill to be a giant terrorizing the countryside. It doesn’t end well, but Don Quixote doesn’t learn anything from the encounter. He manages to miss the fact that they were never giants; he was fighting against windmills the entire time.

Throughout the classic novel, he attacks the innocent and wins meaningless prizes. He is sincere in his passion and utterly fearless. But it all means nothing, because he is misguided from the moment he steps out the door. Don Quixote’s life is tragic—not because he was a hero who fell tragically in the end, but because his every brave endeavor was tragically foolish from beginning to end. The story is humorous, but if Don Quixote were a real person, we wouldn’t be laughing.

Hard as it is to say, I believe Don Quixote is a good parable for much of the modern Church. It’s a caution for all believers throughout history (from Israel to the Modern Church). God’s people have a propensity to drift from the main thing (relationship with God and others) to empty things. This is why the prophets spoke tirelessly against Israel’s wanderings and Paul wrote letters to correct drifting churches.

One of the effects of the Fall is that our human hearts have to fight hard for the things that matter. It doesn’t come naturally. But another effect of the Fall is that we end up fighting for the wrong things. And fighting in the wrong ways. Brokenness prevails, even in hearts that have been redeemed.

I’d love to leave it at that, but I have to go a step further. I am Don Quixote. I pursue so many things with a righteous zeal, but many of those things turn out to be weird, insignificant, or harmful. I can never tell in the moment. (Honestly, I can’t say for sure if jackasstheology.com is just a place for me to be a jackass. I’m not even confident that’s not true for this post I’m writing right now.)

I wish I weren’t Don Quixote, but I know I am. And I’m positive I’m not alone. How many of the areas in which we Christians have scolded, reprimanded, and diminished people could be considered “close to the heart of Jesus”? Be careful how quickly you answer.

“Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Nothing had mattered more in his life than defeating those giants. But the giants were just windmills. Is it possible some of the battles we are fighting are just as misguided?”

As Ryan and I have started Jackass Theology, it’s honestly been difficult for us to look at our own tendencies and the emphases of the American Church and not see much of it as misguided. Maybe we haven’t gone full Don Quixote, but it seems clear that we’ve been charging more than a few windmills.

What’s actually being propagated and protected is not Jesus himself, but a subculture produced by followers of Jesus. Not Jesus, but a derivative of Jesus, with all of its own battles and preoccupations. This is nothing new, but the Pharisees are a reminder that derivatives can be dangerous!

The problem, of course, is that Don Quixote was fully sincere in his quest. Those windmills were real giants to him. Nothing had ever mattered more in Don Quixote’s life to that point than courageously battling that particular giant. The error lies not in his sincerity or passion, but in the misguided nature of his pursuits.

Where do you draw the line? What battles do you consider worth fighting? And who do you see yourself fighting against? (Are you always the hero of your own story?)

Might future generations of Jesus followers look back at our preoccupations and wonder how we could have gotten so concerned over these things?

More importantly, might Jesus disagree with the things we spend our passions on? Having encountered Jesus in the four Gospels, does it seem like he’d be uptight and restrictive about the same things we are, fighting all of the same battles we devote ourselves to?

And really, should we be devoting ourselves to any battles? Or should we just be pursuing Jesus and the people he has placed in our lives to love?

Kierkegaard & the Cure for Jackass

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The 19th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard is without question one of the most influential thinkers in history. If that statement surprises you, it’s because his thinking comes to most of us indirectly through many currently-influential voices. He’s the philosopher equivalent of the bands who influenced the Beatles, who in turn influenced every musician you’ve ever enjoyed.

But he doesn’t do much direct influencing of modern readers because it takes a lot of work to dig into. For one thing, he wrote a ton of books, and those books tended to have many hundreds of pages. But to make matters exceedingly irritating, many of Kierkegaard’s books were written under numerous pseudonyms (Victor Eremita, John Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder, etc. etc. etc.). Some of these pseudonyms seem to represent more nearly than others what Kierkegaard himself believed, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Kierkegaard would play games with these pseudonyms. He would release two books by two different pseudonyms on the same day, or within a couple of weeks of each other. While he was producing these works, he would be sure to be seen in public frequently so that no one would suspect him of being the author of these works (a bit of theatre that worked for a time, but not for long). These books would offer different points of view on Christianity, philosophy, ethics, and society. Kierkegaard also published many books under his own name, but it still takes a lot of brainpower to untangle the relationship between this Kierkegaard and the pseudonymous authors of Kierkegaard’s other books.

Because of these bizarre methods, there’s no consensus on what Kierkegaard himself actually believed, no universally agreed upon “theology of Soren Kierkegaard.” We only have different camps of scholars who tend to hold the same general view of how it all fits together.

I’m tempted to think of that as a frustrating loss. But I’m realizing that it’s not. It’s actually a gift.

How can I possibly claim that this quirky, controversial, confusing philosopher could be the cure to jackass? Because the kind of reading that his books require would make us all better citizens by dismantling our biggest hurdle to mutual understanding.

When I first started reading Kierkegaard’s works, I read them as I read any book. I was in search of “Kierkegaard’s theology.” I wanted to know his views on things. When I do this with any author, I get a feel for their positions, and then I decide whether or not I agree with Calvin or Piper or Wright or Lewis. My thinking is binary (good author or bad author), and my mind is typically made up on a snap judgment rather than careful consideration. But this is actually unhealthy. Because I actually agree with and disagree with all of these authors.

“When you read Kierkegaard, you’re never quite sure where he’s heading or what it means to ‘agree with Kierkegaard.’ With each argument you must decide what you think. “

Why do I feel compelled to side with some authors and against others? Wouldn’t it be healthier to learn from each author and pull the most helpful parts from each? Isn’t it most important to walk away better informed and inwardly transformed as a result of wrestling with important concepts? How does it help me to be able to “agree with John Piper” or whomever, as though it’s all or nothing? Really, it just makes us all that much more divided. Encamped. Partisan.

But Kierkegaard’s bizarre style won’t let us get away with this. You have to think for yourself. When you read Kierkegaard, you have to engage with his actual arguments, because you’re never quite sure where he’s heading and you rarely get a clear picture of what it means to “agree with Kierkegaard.” You have to decide, to “judge for yourself” (to use a Kierkegaardian phrase). With each pseudonym; each book; each paragraph, sentence, and argument, you must weigh and decide what you think.

It’s infuriating. And exhausting. And healthy.

Our political climate is so polarized. You’re republican or you’re democrat. You’re pro or anti whomever. You’re pro this or anti that. We deal in sound bites, in memes. Your response has to be instant. You have to be outraged or impressed within seconds, and if you don’t make a social media statement right now then you’re siding for or against someone or something bad or good!

Don’t you hate it? Isn’t it ugly? Don’t you feel in your bones that we need something better, something more sustainable?

What we need, I submit, is a Kierkegaardian reading of everything. Take your time. You’ll have to decide, but don’t simply follow the party line. Do your homework. Weigh each comment, each argument, each moment on its own merits.

Judge for yourself.

Kierkegaard also rails against indecision, so you do have to make up your mind. Deciding is important, but you’re not allowed to decide by default, by following your tribe’s voting guide. If we could all retrain our habits of engagement in light of Kierkegaard’s infuriatingly inefficient approach, perhaps we’d learn to understand each other better, to renounce the “hot take.” We would then develop wise, patiently-formed, true-to-the-depths-of-our-soul convictions, and we could hold hands and walk away from the echo chambers we’ve been told to pledge allegiance to.

If you want to start on a super healthy journey, I encourage you to read some Kierkegaard. You can do it. I recommend you start with his masterpiece: Works of Love.

Martin Luther’s Potty Mouth

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“You are a crude ass, and an ass you will remain!”


-Martin Luther (Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, pg. 281 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41)

You seriously need to check out the Luther Insulter. I find it hilarious. If you are having a bad day, feeling masochistic, or looking for creative ways to insult friends, check out this site. (Please use it responsibly.) 

This isn’t the Luther you read about in text books, or the celebrated snippets Christian children parrot on Reformation Day (aka, Halloween). It’s the part of the Reformation that is a little too messy for our modern-day church. The part most of us never even knew about.

So what are we to make of Martin Luther? What are we to think of his potty mouth and his insults? Was he a jackass too?

Creating change is messy.

Could Luther have created change without the insults? Maybe, but he didn’t. God used a jackass like Luther to accomplish his work, and it wasn’t pretty or neat.

Luther certainly wasn’t Jesus. But while we are on the topic, Jesus hurled a few insults too, and so did John the Baptist (insert brood of viper motif) as they brought about the biggest change of all time—THE GOSPEL. It got messy, like, crucifixion messy. So change isn’t always pretty, but when change is needed it’s worth fighting for, maybe sometimes it requires some frank speech and a little name calling. Maybe other times change happens despite the frank speech and name calling. 

“Could Martin Luther have created change without such shocking insults? Maybe, but he didn’t. God used a jackass like Luther to accomplish his work, and it wasn’t pretty or neat.”

To the extent that Luther attacked other human beings in vitriol, I don’t condone him. But those of us in the Protestant tradition all acknowledge that God used a flawed yet passionate person at that moment in history.

Jen Hatmaker recently posted an excerpt on Instagram from the book she is writing:

“My beliefs were challenged because they were the byproduct of an obviously corrupt system, historically dead last to the table of confession and repentance. My beliefs were challenged because the same people were always in charge and they hung pictures of White Jesus in my Sunday School rooms. My beliefs were challenged because while promising life abundant, they broke hearts and trust and bodies and families with a clear conscience. My beliefs were challenged because, had I held to them as dictated, I would have no ministry, no authority, no agency over my own God-given gifts. My beliefs were challenged because the missionary culture I grew up in turned out to be colonization. My beliefs were challenged because they shamed girls and victims but protected men and abusers. My beliefs were challenged because they sentenced LGBTQ people to traumatic conversion therapy, forced celibacy, public humiliation, and ultimately suicide at seven times the normal rate. My beliefs were challenged because they weren’t producing many disciples, mostly just gatekeepers and defectors.”

That’s pretty messy. You may hate it or love it, but we can all agree it’s not neutral. Neutral doesn’t change much.

There are things in the current Christian culture that I believe are compromising the spread of the Gospel and the joy of the gospel. I’m not talking about megachurch culture, loose doctrine, or politicians. It comes from our infighting, which directs our energies at one another, and shifts our eyes away from our Heavenly Father, who desperately wants all of his kids to come home to a family meal.

What the Insults of Jesus, Luther, and Hatmaker Have in Common

They are directing their negative energy and insults at hypocrisy in the church, as a means to bring everything back to THE MAIN POINT. I truly believe this is the heart of Jesus, Luther, Hatmaker, and so many other leaders who are trying to bring about change. Of course, Jesus’ harsh words were also on point; Luther and Hatmaker are human and thus guaranteed to veer into jackassery at some point. 

I’m not comparing Jen Hatmaker to the Son of God or even the father of the Reformation. She is simply an example that change—no matter the decade, gender, or context—can be messy. I’m not sure that is a bad thing. Nor do I need to agree with everything a human does and says to derive value from their faithful battle against the status quo. I don’t even always agree with everything I say.

I’ll leave you with one more insult courtesy of Martin Luther. 

If you don’t agree with everything I say in this post…

“You are like the ostrich, the foolish bird which thinks it is wholly concealed when it gets its neck under a branch. Or like small children, who hold their hands in front of their eyes and seeing nobody imagine that no one sees them either. In general, you are so stupid that it makes one feel like vomiting.”


-Martin Luther (Against the Heavenly Prophets, pg. 186 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 40.)

LOVE YA!

-Ryan