Why All this Hate?

Why is so much political vitriol spewed these days, not just from politicians and commentators but from ordinary people? Why is social media full of such extreme rhetoric? Why can’t we have a simple conversation anymore?

Yes, cable news and talk radio hosts have taken advantage of our situation. And yes, there are more than 50,000 Russian-linked social-media accounts fueling outrage by sending automated messages on both sides of issues. But these only feed on a pre-existing condition.

In the last few years I’ve read four books which all give the same answer. Interestingly, two books were by conservatives, one was by a liberal, and one was by an independent observer.

What did all these agree on? That the primary cause of all this contentiousness is not political differences. Rather it is loneliness.

In his book Them, Republican Senator Ben Sasse notes that since World War II single-person households have tripled to 26 percent. Rates of depression and addiction are increasing. At the same time, “Between 1975 and 1995, membership in social clubs and community organizations such as the PTA, Kiwanis, and Rotary plummeted. Same with labor union membership and regular church attendance” (p. 26). The trend continues with Covid exacerbating the situation. The causes are multiple but the result is what Sasse calls a Loneliness Epidemic.

Second, conservative commentator David Brooks made the same point in The Second Mountain. Brooks thinks our increasing isolation from one another has led us to gravitate toward twisted forms of connection. As Brooks says, tribalism is the evil twin of community. The first is defined by who is our foe. The second by who is our friend.

In a third book, Upheaval, Jared Diamond, a scientist and historian with a more liberal bent, likewise notes that a hundred years ago Americans were involved in book clubs, bridge clubs, church groups, community organizations, town meetings, unions, veteran’s associations and more. This fostered trust and reliance on each other.

Then radio, then TV, then video games, then the internet, and then smart phones increasingly kept people in their homes. As a result, “heavy TV viewers trust other people less, and join fewer voluntary organizations than do people who are not heavy TV viewers” (p. 352). In short, we are increasingly separated from each other, increasingly isolated.

The fourth book comes from independent author Jeffrey Bilbro who is editor of Front Porch Republic. He writes in Reading the Times, “As Robert Nisbet puts it in his classic study, The Quest for Community, an individual thus alienated ‘not only does not feel a part of the social order; he has lost interest in being a part of it.’ Loneliness has now become an epidemic in Western liberal democracies. And, apparently, being lonely is worse for some¬one’s health than being a smoker.” (p. 127)

We are homeless and so search, even yearn, for new types of community, which we are finding on line. “In other words, perhaps it is because we are lonely and detached from our places that we put such outsized importance on the news of the day” (p. 129).

What can we do about this? I’ll take that up in my next installment.

Image by Grae Dickason from Pixabay

The Book We Need This Year

When I was recently asked to do a six-minute radio interview on Francis Schaeffer’s classic The Mark of the Christian, I was reminded what a good book it would be to read this year. With all the political vitriol sure to be spouted incessantly, Christians will be challenged. Will we follow the world’s ways or follow Jesus’ command to his disciples to “love one another” (John 13:34)?

If we frequently listen to radio, TV, podcasts and even sermons that tell us that people who disagree with our political views are ignorant and unbiblical, if not downright in league with the devil, how can we help but think and feel the same?

Schaeffer makes two compelling points from John’s gospel in this book that can be read in just an hour. First, if we don’t show love toward other Christians, then non-Christians have the right to say we aren’t Christians at all. “By this,” Jesus says, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

And Jesus was right. That is exactly what happens when my neighbors see how much Christians show hatred toward others. “How can they call themselves Christian when they act so unlike Jesus?”

Schaeffer’s second point is perhaps even more dramatic. When Christians show loving harmony and grace toward each other, that is “the final apologetic.” It is proof that the gospel is true. When Christians are “brought to complete unity,” Jesus says, “then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:21). Schaeffer’s timeless book closes with some very practical counsel on how to do just this.

In 2024 reading The Mark of the Christian can set us on the right path. Who’s lead will we follow? The polarizing voices of our political persuasion? Or the voice of Jesus?

The Environmental Crisis Is Over

A year ago today, the environmental and energy crises ended.

“What? Seriously? They ended? Did I miss something?”

Yes, you did. And so did almost everyone else.

We now have the solution to pollution from oil and coal-burning power plants along with a nearly endless supply of clean energy.

So what is this miracle technology? And why don’t we know about it? Both questions are incredibly important.

What Is the Technology?

The technology is fusion energy. On December 5, 2022, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California demonstrated fusion ignition in the laboratory for the first time after six decades of research and effort by a dozen countries.

Instead of splitting the atom (the fission technology that makes nuclear bombs possible), “nuclear fusion is the process by which two light atomic nuclei combine to form a single heavier one while releasing massive amounts of energy.” Unlike today’s nuclear power plants, no radiation is created, and the technology cannot be made into a weapon—as evidenced by the fact that even during the whole Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union cooperated on fusion research!

There are nearly fifty companies working now on implementing this technology. In ten years the first nuclear fusion power plant could be contributing to the grid. In twenty years a hundred plants could be online. And in forty years all coal- and oil-burning power plants could be decommissioned. Much remains to be done, but the solution is here.

Why Didn’t We Know About It?

How could we have missed something this monumental? That is an equally important question. This could be the most important news story of the century, and yet people don’t know it. Now that I’ve reminded you, you may vaguely recall hearing a report about this first successful fusion test. But you likely don’t remember much about its implications.

The reason few people are aware of it is that the news industry almost never reports what’s important. The sensational, the visually arresting, the emotionally compelling—these dominate our news. And these daily reports have almost no lasting significance to us personally or to our communities.

The news industries emphasize these ephemeral items because their purpose is not to inform but to make money. As I’ve written about before here and here and here, they focus on what will get them eyeballs and ratings.

What’s the solution? How can we be better informed if the news media (or worse, social media) is not the way to do it. This requires multifaceted, multilayered answers, but here is just one: Stop following the news and instead read books.

I have a much better understanding of what’s going on in the world by reading books like Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Factfulness by Hans Rosling, or Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance. These consider important issues and trends from the last forty years which have much more explanatory power about our crazy world than anything you will ever hear on CNN, FOX, or MSNBC.

I also include long form journalism in this category—whether print or electronic. I learned about the massive implications of nuclear fusion by listening to one of the in-depth (usually three-hour!) interviews by Lex Fridman.*

When we stop following the news, we can be calmer, kinder, and better informed people.

* Lex Fridman Podcast, “Dennis Whyte: Nuclear Fusion and the Future of Energy, “ January 21, 2023.

Image credit: Pixabay

An Antidote to Fake News

Sadly, fake news and widespread misinformation are probably here to stay. So many fabrications appear so fast that there’s no way we can correct every wrong claim someone makes.

But there is hope. We can use a few quick, handy tools to make us less susceptible to being conned on social media and elsewhere.

With the fun, free, and easy to use Cranky Uncle app, we can start to train ourselves to spot false reasoning and errors in logic. The colorful game in the app introduces us to the five-point acronym FLICC.

Fake experts
Logical fallacies
Impossible expectations
Cherry picking
Conspiracy theories

Cranky Uncle, for example, offers this statement: “A Nobel Prize winner in chemistry says vitamin C can cure cancer.”

Which of the five FLICC techniques listed above is that statement an example of? I missed this one the first time. This is an instance of a fake expert. A chemist is an expert but not in the area of cancer research.

What about this: “Scientific models don’t perfectly match observations so they can’t be relied on.” Which FLICC is this? You probably got this right away—it’s impossible expectations which demand unrealistic standards of certainty.

You can find Cranky Uncle, the brainchild of John Cook from the University of Melbourne, at the Apple App Store or on Google Play. There’s even a version you can use on a browser.

If we can get better at spotting logical fallacies like oversimplification, ad hominem, false analogies, red herrings and more, it’s less likely anyone will make a fool out of us.

Hysteria or Hope

Into the blast furnace of political rage and hysteria, Patrick Schreiner brings a cool, fresh breeze that clears heads and calms souls.

Rather than erupting about particular issues, his book Political Gospel takes a measured and insightful look at what the Bible says about Christians and governments.

First, Schreiner says the gospel is decidedly political but not the way we might think. It is not partisan. It does not justify supporting one party or another. Rather it is political in that the gospel speaks to our common public life that we all share, regardless of our beliefs.

Jesus, after all, said he was king. And certainly the Roman government as well as the Jewish leaders understood that to be political. So political, in fact, that it got him killed.

The word gospel was also taken from the world of politics, a word meaning “good news” that was applied to the announcement of military victories.

Even the word believe (as in “repent and believe the gospel”) was about loyalty as much as faith. Who would we be loyal to ultimately? Caesar or God? That’s political.

With skill and expertise, Schreiner handles all the passages we’d expect and many we wouldn’t that bear on these questions. Yes, Romans 13 encourages submitting to government authorities because their authority comes from God. But we must also lay that alongside Revelation 13 which views governments as sourced in Satan.

How do we deal with this dual nature of civic power? With a dual response—both submission and subversion. Schreiner contends this was Jesus’ own response.

Jesus submitted to a Roman trial when he could have used his power (that is, he could have used violence) to stop it. He didn’t. Nonetheless, he refused to accept Rome’s authority as ultimate. God was the source of whatever authority the government had. While the government could act contrary to God, it was nonetheless responsible for its misdeeds and for failing to provide justice for the weak and oppressed.

Likewise, Paul proclaimed a subversive message contrary to the government’s view of the gods and what it meant to be a loyal citizen, but he submitted to government authorities and procedures when arrested—much like his Master.

Schreiner’s framework, as he himself admits, doesn’t resolve every public debate. We still have knotty problems to untie. But he does offer principles to guide us—principles that clearly don’t include ridiculing others, name calling, self-righteous anger, or violence.

Throughout Schreiner highlights Jesus’ third way—not a compromise between two extremes but a path that refuses to accept the assumptions or categories of either side.

One of his most important insights in applying the framework of submission and subversion is that how we employ these two strategies is dependent on how much power we have in society. “For those with power, submission means sacrifice and service. We sacrifice our own desires and power for the common good.” Subversion means taking advantage of “opportunities to reform” from the inside in the cause of justice for those without power, not for our benefit or that of our group.

Those with less power will spend “more time critiquing or protesting the existing norms” (p. 198-99) even as they seek to show respect for those in authority. In either case, to subvert is to suffer for doing good.

Clearly, when so few American Christians seem to believe we should love our enemies, the church has failed in political discipleship. Political Gospel is a step toward faithfully bearing witness to the kingdom of God.

Entitled to the Truth?

I was with a group of friends recently who have known each other for years . . . ok, decades. Well, let’s just admit it all up front. We are a bunch of old codgers.

We have lived a lot of life together, seen our children grow and marry and have their own children. We’ve seen heartache and laughter. And we’ve stayed well connected.

Our age and stage of life came into sharp focus when Cooper, the twenty-something grandson of someone in our group, joined us for a get together. He had a sharp and active mind with an engaging personality. He listened a lot and then eventually began asking some incisive questions.

We were talking about the problem of fake news. Several voiced outrage at the challenges of discerning what was accurate and what wasn’t as well as at the ethics of those who intentionally put out twisted information.

Then Cooper said, “Can I ask a question? Do you feel you are entitled to the truth?”

Without hesitation everyone chimed in, “Yes.” “Of course.” “Certainly.”

“That’s interesting,” he responded. “Because I don’t think my generation believes that we are. This world of uncertainty is just the hand we have been dealt. Not being sure of what is true and of what isn’t is simply the way things are.”

The irony of Cooper using entitled did not escape me. We were now being gently labeled with a word that we had probably all used to malign people of his age.

I was also struck by the chasm between our generation and Cooper’s. Yes, it made me feel very old. But I appreciated the clarity that Cooper gave to our differences and the added challenges our children and their children have in the world.

My first reaction, nonetheless, when Cooper finished, was to blurt out, “Thank you, Cooper, for pointing out that we are all conservative here.”

Though we were a group of people with mixed political and religious ideas, at this one central point we were all united. We thought that Truth existed, that it was possible to find it, and that we deserved to know what it was. This is a very traditional, very conservative idea. It goes back millennia and permeates a wide variety of ancient cultures. And we all believed it, whether liberal or not.

I was encouraged that we held this important belief in common. Searching together for the truth was not a hopeless endeavor. It was worth us all pursuing.

Image by Hajnalka Mahler from Pixabay

Reading the Times

For the last dozen years I have consistently avoided the news, and I feel I am a better person for it. In the spirit of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Jeffrey Bilbro goes even deeper in his literary, social, and theological analysis found in Reading the Times.

Bilbro hits his stride in Part Two with his penetrating comments on time. That may seem especially theoretical, but it makes all the difference whether we are beholden to chronos time (chronology; quantitative clock time) or kairos time (often defined as qualitative moments of significance). The news is imprisoned by chronos. It isolates and disconnects events from their meaning and leaves us barren.

The author goes even further, saying that with kairos time “history’s true meaning emerges in the light of Christ’s life.” Our lives are not empty, trivial moments that are doomed to be forgotten centuries and millennia hence. Rather, quoting Paul Griffiths, “the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus lie at the heart of time. . . . Time is contracted by these events, pleated and folded around them, gathered by them into a tensely dense possibility.” Every laugh, every tear, every act of love is caught up in the kairos of Christ for eternity. Death is defeated. In Christ, nothing is lost.

How do we apply all this to the dilemma of our current hyper-contentious news environment? Bilbro, perhaps surprisingly, critiques the conventional wisdom that we need more fact checking and that we need to diversify our news feeds. I’ll let you read the book to find out why, but here’s a hint: it has to do with forming community.

In this way Bilbro offers more ways forward than Postman. “Instead of allowing the news to create our communities, Christians should seek to help their communities create the news.” This can begin with the simple act of walking our neighborhoods rather than isolating ourselves in cars or behind screens. On another level we can, for example, pursue redemptive publishing by reading, he suggests, things like Civil Eats, American Conservative, The Atlantic, Commonweal, Hedgehog Review and more.

This book is so much more than about the news. It is a rich and profound book about life. And you can easily find the time to read it with all the free time you will have from not following the news.

Image by Q K from Pixabay

Two Visions of the Future

Two novels written decades ago have shaped the genre of dystopias–grim tales of the near future. From these have come The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Matrix, even Pixar’s WALL-E, and many more. What are the two landmark books?

George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1949) imagines a future dictatorship in which Big Brother knows everything that everyone does and thinks. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (published in 1932) imagines a highly technological society in which humans are genetically bred, indoctrinated, and drugged into passive obedience.

I’ve been rereading Neil Postman’s classic Amusing Ourselves to Death, published in 1985, and was once again struck by his opening comparison of these two. He writes:

Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, or there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

What do you think? Was Postman right? Is our world closer to Brave New World than to 1984?

Reading While Black

We all read the Bible from our own viewpoint, from within our own culture and background. Our circumstances make us ask certain questions we wouldn’t ask otherwise. We could consider this a disadvantage. How could we know what the Bible really said when we are inevitably limited? But what if this were a blessing? What if this drawback allowed God to speak with truth and power to our particular situations?

Consider Martin Luther. His context of an often legalistic and corrupt church made him ask certain questions of the Bible about salvation. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His experiences with the black church in Harlem and Hitler’s regime in Germany drove him to ask certain questions about how Christians and the church should relate to the government. Their answers did not encompass all the Bible said, but they were true.

This is what Esau McCaulley offers in Reading While Black. He found himself both feeling at home and not feeling at home with black and white progressives as well as with black and white evangelicals. Could he forge a new path that was unapologetically black and unapologetically orthodox? With pain and hope he points the way to true answers.

Several years ago, when I heard Esau McCaulley offer initial thoughts on a theology of policing, I thought, “What an amazing, creative question to ask, and what an intriguing, substantive proposal he makes!” In this book McCaulley also asks: How should the church offer a political witness? What is a full-orbed view of justice? How can Blacks gain identity from Scripture? What should Blacks do with the rage they feel from the injustices they’ve experienced? Does the Bible justify slavery as some contended for centuries?

The insights he offers to these are many and stirring. For example, he reminds us that Romans 13 is not the only passage about attitudes toward government in the Bible. In Luke 13:32-33 Jesus shows no deference toward a particular ruler. In Luke 1:51-53 Mary looks forward to governments which are not run by prideful men but which help the poor (echoing Isaiah).

He also highlights the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise that all nations would be blessed through Abraham when Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons (his two biracial, half-African sons!) as his own in Genesis 48:3-5. Can those of African descent especially find their place in God’s promises? Indeed!

Then there is the question of black rage. I found his thoughts on the psalms of lament and imprecatory psalms to be some of the most powerful reflections he has to offer in the book.

The answers that Luther and Bonhoeffer found in the Bible are true—but they aren’t exactly the same. McCaulley simply asks for the same privilege that was accorded these gentlemen to struggling with difficult texts and difficult contexts.

Yet if everyone comes to the Bible from a different place, how can we know what it really says? Should we stop asking what the central message of the Bible is? McCaulley says no. We should instead ask (as he does) which understanding “does justice to as much of the biblical witness as possible. There are uses of Scripture that utter a false testimony about God.” (p. 91).

Esau McCaulley wrote this important book for himself. As a result he has also written a necessary book for all of us.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My opinions are my own.

An American Ideal, An American Myth

Books are better sources of information and insight than tweets or headlines. Two years ago I reviewed here The Myth of Equality, a book that gives more help and understanding than anything you will hear or read in the news today.

Ken Wytsma was talking with a young man running his own landscaping firm who was proud of how he’d started from zero and succeeded by virtue of hard work, with no benefit from privilege. So Ken asked where he got most of his business (the suburbs) and where they worked on jobs (in backyards) and when (during the day) and how he got business (putting flyers on doors and knocking at houses).

Then Ken asked, “If you were a young black man proposing to work in the backyards of those suburbanites during the day when they’re not home, is it possible some of your clients might show a degree of suspicion or bias? If you were Hispanic, talked with an accent, or looked like you were from a culture unfamiliar to the suburban communities where people can afford backyard ponds and fountains, do you think it might–even if ever so slightly–affect how successful you are when you knock on doors?” The white friend understood.

While equality is an American ideal, Ken Wytsma tells us, it is also an American myth. State-sponsored racist policies did not end with the abolishment of slavery. They have continued in various forms ever since.

As Wytsma recounts in The Myth of Equality, voting restrictions in the post-Reconstruction era reduced Alabama’s black voter turnout from 180,000 to 3,000. It fell to zero in Virginia and North Carolina. Today efforts continue to hinder voter registration.

Astonishingly, forced labor was widely reinstituted around the turn of the twentieth century with thousands of blacks arrested on minor charges and then leased back by the state to business owners. In fact, in Mississippi, “25 percent of convicts leased out for forced labor were children.”

Regarding housing, redlining in the North during most of the twentieth century reduced the value of minority real estate holdings, with contractual options to take their property away from them for missing one payment–something white buyers did not have to endure. The effects of this systematic impoverishment are with us still.

In the last fifty years, the war on drugs has targeted minority populations creating an incarceration-industrial complex. Things are beginning to change, but Wytsma finds it ironic that in Oregon, where marijuana is now legal, “white corporate businessmen now stand to make millions of dollars by selling a product that millions of men, predominantly of color, are currently incarcerated for possessing in miniscule amounts.”

Does all this have anything to do with the gospel? Wytsma quotes Timothy Keller: “Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of the vulnerable is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice.” Biblical justice is not just punishing evil doers but restoring what was bent or broken. The cross doesn’t just allow sins to be forgiven but restores relationships. It reconciles us to God and us to each other.

Compassion for individuals is good and right, but it is only a component of justice which also looks to remedy underlying causes for such needs. Compassion, contends Wytsma, can also feed our hero complex. We encourage a more holistic justice when we use our influence and authority to give our responsibilities, opportunities, and power to those who have not had it equally.

Through a clear retelling of American history, a well-rounded discussion of biblical justice, and concrete ways we can move ahead individually and corporately, Wytsma provides an important book on an important topic.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.