Repost (and Some News): Why I Like My Grandma’s Church

I have good news and bad news. First the bad news: I won’t be able to update the blog for a few weeks. That means you’ll be getting a series of “best of” posts. But the reason I can’t update the blog is (cue good news) I’m working on a secret new project. I think you’ll like it. I won’t give too much away, but it involves evangelicalism, robots, and Tasmanian tigers. And don’t worry–I’ll let you all know as soon as it’s ready….

So now, here’s “best of” post number one:

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Check out the original post here, or just keep reading.

As any cynic knows, the easiest targets are previous generations. It’s simple for millennials to be cynical toward people who are older than us:

  • They’ve already had a shot at running the world. That means all remaining problems must be the result of them screwing up.
  • They have different views of morality and propriety. This obviously means they’re prudish, bigoted, narrow-minded, and generally wicked.
  • They’re, well, old. So we can point to hilarious examples of why they’re silly–look at those old people with their sagging skin and high pants and McDonalds coffee! They can’t even use Facebook right!

When cynics look further into the past, things get even easier. We can make whatever sarcastic joke we want. It could be unfair, and even untrue (Victorians were afraid of sex! Puritans hated fun! The Middle Ages were full of ignorant superstition!). It still sticks.

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What Old Books and Rwandan Bishops Have in Common

The last couple weeks have been depressing. Of course, there’s the usual stuff: hectic job, crowded schedule, and the existential horror of finding a grey hair in your mustache scruff. The social mediasphere is as toxic as I’ve ever seen it. It’s getting to the point where each new development in the Kavanaugh quagmire makes me feel nauseous.

But this week, I’ve found comfort from two different sources: century-old books, and a Rwandan bishop. I think they’re comforting for the same reason. But before I explain, here’s a little bit about the two sources:

  • Old Books. This past week I’ve been revisiting a couple old books that I love. They aren’t profound. In fact, they’re pulpy and kind of silly. One is “The Woman in White” by Wilkie Collins, which was published in 1859. The other is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars” from 1912. But what the books lack in substance they make up in other virtues–they’re both imaginative, atmospheric, and charged with adventure. And they both have wonderful narratorial voices. By wonderful, I mean different. There’s a unique kind of intimacy that comes from following the way a narrator guides a novel. You get access not only into their opinions, but also the assumptions and habits that were commonplace to them, but are alien to modern readers. While sometimes shocking, on the whole it’s charming.
  • Rwandan Bishops. One of my favorite things about my church is our connection with Rwanda. We were planted by the Anglican Church of Rwanda, and have kept close ties ever since. Folks from our church regularly head over to Rwanda on pilgrimage. And, on the rare occasions, the visa system permits Rwandan leaders to visit us. This past Sunday we hosted Bishop Samuel Mugisha Mugiraneza. His sermon was excellent–you can listen to it here. His insights into American culture were especially striking. Being a visitor and observer helped him identify uniquely American struggles we take for granted–a consuming desire to get ahead, a gnawing need to work, and monetizing all our time.

You probably guessed what these sources have in common, but I’ll explain anyway. They both got me out of my neurotic news bubble. Getting outside the bubble lets me see its limits, feel its edges, and put it in context. My problems aren’t the whole world. My country’s problems aren’t either. They’re just a tiny piece of a larger picture. Whether you’re hearing the Word of God from the other side of the world, or just spending some time in a pleasant Victorian page-turner, it helps to remember that.

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Photo by David Flores

CS Lewis Was Right About Dialogue

CS Lewis once quipped that, “The more ‘up to date’ the book is, the sooner it will be dated.” Novels with teenage characters are a great example of this principle. Writing dialogue for teen characters is hard. New words, phrases, and expressions shuffle in and out of their speech so fast that it’s impossible to get it right for long.

There are two approaches novelists can take in response. The first is trying to capture teen slang in as up-to-the-minute detail as possible. Tana French’s 2014 novel The Secret Place takes that approach.

The Secret Place is a detective novel with literary aspirations. It centers around a murder at an all-girls school outside Dublin. The girls’ speech is, to put it mildly, distinctive. Here are some actual lines of dialogue:

“Not even. I mean, maybe, but no? Like, they could’ve just made it up … They’re, ohmyGod, so weird . . . Well, they used to be OK, like ages ago. Now we’re just like, ‘Whatever,’ you know?”

“[S]he thought she was totes amazeballs because she’d caught someone who was in OMG college, but of course he dumped her the second he found out how old she actually was.”

“OhmyGod, here, have some more duh. They can say whatever they want.”

“[Y]ou actually do the blood-sisters thing? Because that would be so totes adorbs I could just die.”

“But, I mean, she just said it. Straight out. All the guys were like ‘OMG, ew! Way TMI!’ . . . See what I mean? They act like they can say anything they want. None of them have boyfriends–duh, surprise?”

French obviously worked hard to capture the precise language of Dublin teens in 2014. But the problems with her approach outweigh the accomplishment.

Using so much slang is a cheap way to make the dialogue feel “authentic” without digging deeper. The important thing about French’s teenage characters should be their desires, motivations, and values—not the fact that they say “totes adorbs.” French does have interesting things to say about teenage friendship. Or at least, she would if she didn’t distract readers with all the jargon.

Also, this dialogue has aged terribly. I’m a 31 year old nerd, and even I know that teens don’t say things like “totes amazeballs” anymore. A mere four years after publication, it’s already embarrassingly dated.

Meg Wolitzer’s 2013 novel The Interestings takes the opposite approach. Its opening scene is a conversation between a group of teens at an arts camp during the summer of 1974. I’m sure that teens in the 1970s had just as much slang as teens from any other period. But you’d never know it from the book.

For instance, one of the boys loves the phrase “diametrically opposed.” This isn’t a slang term, but it’s perfect for the character: a clever, precocious teen who wants his friends to think he’s profound. It’s the sort of thing I used to say as a teenager.

Perhaps the best dialogue, though, is from a character named Ethan. He’s the group’s most talented artist, and has been nervously explaining his cartoon creation to a girl he has a crush on. After a long description, he says:

“Oh, and did I say that the cartoon is funny? It’s a comedy. Or it’s supposed to be, anyway. You get the idea, I think. Or maybe you don’t . . . I don’t even know why I want to show it to you, but I do, and there it is . . . It just occurred to me in the teepee tonight that there was a slight possibility that you and I had something in common. You know, a sensibility. And that maybe you might like this. But I’m warning you that you might also really, really hate it. Anyway, be honest. Sort of.”

When I finished reading that passage, I thought about how perfectly Wolitzer captured what it was like to be a teenager. And she did it without a word of slang or up-to-date jargon.

The lesson for writers should be obvious. Focusing on the latest slang creates dialogue that feels dated the instant it’s published. But focusing on the timeless aspects of being a teenager creates dialogue that will remain authentic for decades to come. The best way to make it fresh is to stop worrying about making it up-to-date.

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“Speech Bubbles” by Philippe Parreno (1997)

Photo by Looking 4 Poetry

Do Evangelical Celebrities Really Have Worse Kids?

You may have noticed this post is a couple days late. That’s because my original post was *gasp* shrouded in CONTROVERSY.

Sort of.

My original post’s argument went like this: (1) a declaration that the children of evangelical celebrities are, on average, worse people than children of normal evangelicals; (2) a personal anecdote about a jerk evangelical celebrity kid who I went to high school with; and (3) speculation on why evangelical celebrity kids are worse people.

Before I post anything, though, I ask my wife to review it to make edits and stop me from saying anything stupid. And this time, Danielle’s “anything stupid” detector was blaring.

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Conservatives Have Weasel Words, Too

A couple weeks ago, I argued that “toxic” was a weasel word that progressive Christians use too much. On my Facebook page,1 a reader2 pointed out that conservative Christians have their own weasel words. One in particular caught my attention: liberal. I think that’s spot-on. And yes, I have several specific points about why conservative Christians shouldn’t use it so much:

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Of Trojans and Turtles

I noticed something strange when I walked past Target’s toy aisle. It was dominated by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This is not a criticism. As someone whose boyhood was in the 80’s and 90’s, I loved the Turtles. I watched every show, practiced every ninja move, and collected every action figure. A giant bin of them is still in a corner of my parents’ basement.

But that was nearly thirty years ago, and the Turtles are still popular. I would never have picked the Turtles as something that could endure to new generations. After all, they are a group of humanoid turtles who use karate to fight an army of robots in the sewers of Manhattan. They love pizza and skateboards and shell-based puns. How is this so lasting?

One possible reason for their staying power is their use of classical themes. Beneath the cartoon silliness is a story that has been repeated since Ancient Greece. This is especially evident in the most important relationship in the series: Leonardo and Raphael.

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Why Couldn’t 90’s Kids Watch Cool TV?

If you were raised evangelical in the 90’s, there were lots of tv shows you weren’t allowed to watch for hilarious reasons.1 If you don’t believe me, watch this John Crist video right now.

While it’s fun to laugh at our parents for what my dad calls “Christian political correctness,” we should sympathize with them. They were trying to protect their kids from a multi-headed hydra of influences they knew almost nothing about. Also, there’s a distinct possibility that we’ll do the same thing with our kids.

Maybe.

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How Civility Is Like Torture

Civility is a hot topic lately. Based on the smoke from my Twitter feed, here’s where we stand:

  • The Left has just abandoned civility because Trump is causing an EXISTENTIAL CRISIS!
  • The Right abandoned civility the moment they made Trump their presidential nominee/warlord. Despite this, they are currently complaining about the Left’s lack of civility.

For all the wailing and posturing to the contrary, both sides have the same view of civility: it’s fine under normal circumstances, but dangerous in EMERGENCIES(!).

This thinking is wrong for the same reason that torture is wrong. I should probably explain.

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In Praise of Strategic Ignorance

Jordan Peterson is a terrible person. Or maybe he isn’t; I’m not really sure.

To be honest, I barely know anything about Jordan Peterson. And that’s on purpose. Today, I’d like to introduce you to something I call “Strategic Ignorance.”

The concept is simple: going out of your way to avoid learning about a silly hot button topic. That what I’ve been doing with Jordan Peterson. Any time I see an article or tweet about him–pro or con–I ignore it.

As such, my knowledge of Peterson is delightfully slight. He’s a psychiatrist, I think? Or maybe something like evolutionary psychologist. But anyway, he has incendiary opinions on . . . gender? Morality? And his growing influence is either an existential threat to society or its last great hope. I have no idea. For all I know, he could be the lost heir to the throne of Bohemia.

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Before You Congratulate Yourself on Your “Prophetic Witness”… Another Thought Experiment

In my last post, I tried using the Trolley Problem to show the moral consequences of evangelicals who support Trump. Today, I want to tease out more ethical consequences with another hypothetical. Because I was pretty rough on Trump-voting evangelicals last time, I thought I’d frame this one in terms more applicable to my brand of evangelical. Here it goes:

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