Let us begin by saying that I don’t know who made the meme, but I thought that it was one of the funniest things I had seen for quite some time. And I have heard, but have not confirmed, that there is also one floating around that has the cameraman labeled as Banner of Truth.
But there are also more serious issues in play, and I think it has now become necessary that we talk about them, at least for a bit. Aaron Renn recently wrote about the fact that Crossway just published an article that, taking a charitable interpretation, is remarkably tone deaf about the moment we are in.
Here is Renn’s comment:
Here is a classic example of the modern evangelical church reconciling itself to post-familialism. It’s truly astonishing that in an age of falling family formation rates, rising median age of first marriage, declining fertility, etc. that marriage and family are said to be idols. Many churches have sold out their own members’ futures in order to avoid unpleasant conversations in the present.Aaron Renn
And here is the article he was referring to. That article, “When Marriage and Motherhood Become Idols,” is excerpted from a recent Crossway book, Cultural Counterfeits, by the same author, Jen Oshman.
Now we need to be careful, but we need to be careful as we actually work through this. And because it is not yet November, let me begin with a variation on my “second paragraph rule.” Let me begin the discussion with a couple of key qualifications.
As Just Mentioned, My First Key Qualification
The first and most obvious one is that marriage and motherhood can indeed become idols. We live in a fallen world, and idolatry is placing any value on any created thing that belongs only to our Creator. Idolatry is the attempt to squeeze out of a finite thing what only the infinite can provide. You don’t have to light candles in front of something, or leave baskets of fruit there, in order for the idolatry to be occurring. This is why Paul tags covetousness and greed as idolatry (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). So thus far, yea and amen.
But this can happen in any direction, with any created thing. You should notice that in the episode Jen Oshman started the article with, the possible idolator was tagged as the one who, at a baby shower, made a comment about the high value of motherhood. But is it not also possible to make an idol out of the feelings of women struggling with infertility at a baby showers? Yes, that is possible also. Not only is it possible, it happens.
Now I put it to you. If we are talking about this generation, what is the more pressing temptation? The temptation to walk on eggs in everything you say to avoid offending somebody about something? Or the temptation to measure your worth before God by means of the sheer volume of babies produced? Now I do know of some circles in the conservative Christian world where the culprit would in fact be the answer to the second question. Yeah, that happens. But that happens in very limited and isolated circles. That is not our cultural problem right now.
Here is C.S. Lewis, on point, as usual:
“The use of fashions in thought is to distract men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is in the least danger, and fix its approval on the virtue that is nearest the vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running around with fire extinguishers whenever there’s a flood; and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gone under.”
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
The problem here, as Aaron Renn aptly points out, is that this is a warning that is wildly out of sync with the times we are actually in. It is as though the fleet of Suleiman the Magnificent has just sailed against Malta, and Crossway published an article warning us against making an idol out of small islands in the Mediterranean. I would say two things in response to this. “Yes, of course it is possible to make an idol out of small islands in the Mediterranean, and it has no doubt been done many times.” And two, “Do you have any notion of what is going on right now?”
And this is why it will be possible to read through that article and be able to say amen to any number of good and wholesome and orthodox things that are said—in isolation, in the abstract. But it still represents a radical misreading of the times we are in. As the sage once said, the only difference between salad and garbage is timing.
My Second Qualification
The second key qualification must also be emphasized. When it comes to whatever national influence my ministry might have, I owe more to Crossway Books than to any other earthly institution. They are ones who first put our ministry here in Moscow on the map, and I am profoundly grateful to them for it. They published my first book on education, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. Ten years later, they also published my follow up book The Case for Classical Christian Education. In addition to that, they also published my book Writers to Read. But it was Recovering that made the initial big splash, and led to us being able to found the Association of Classical Christian Schools, with our first three conferences here in Moscow, and now with hundreds of schools around the country, and an annual national conference, last year in Dallas, next year in Pittsburgh. The ACCS has equipped thousands of teachers, and has been a huge blessing to tens of thousands of students, and if you walk far enough upstream you find Crossway at the headwaters. Crossway has done an awful lot of people an awful lot of good.
My relationship with them is comparable to my relationship with John Piper. It is quite true that I write, say or do things that no doubt make them feel like something hot and sticky is crawling up their spine (hence the meme), and makes them want to say things like “the management does not necessarily agree with . . .” At the same time, John Piper has been extraordinarily kind to me, as have the folks at Crossway. Now it is quite possible that the folks at Crossway might not currently want the whole country to know that they have been extraordinarily kind to me, but there it is. They have been, and my gratitude is deep and sincere.
But Crossway is still conflicted. They are in the same boat with Carl Trueman. If you want to know what the heck is going on in the culture around you, you need to read Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, published by Crossway, a truly important book. They also published a more accessible version of the same thesis in Strange New World. If you are in any position of Christian leadership at all, you need to read at least one of those two books, and I would actually recommend both of them. But it is a mystery how Trueman could see what was up with Rousseau so clearly, and not be able to see what was up with Aimee Byrd. This is that kind of thing. Crossway is conflicted the same way.
Back to Lewis
Lewis spoke of devils driving us this way and that by means of “fashions of thought.” Does any of this sound familiar? When insightful conservative . . . let’s just call them seers . . . when insightful conservative seers told us all what was going to result if we continued accepting the unbelieving premises that we were accepting, what was it that caused all the respectable brethren to shush them?
Fashions of thought, that’s what. And why could Lewis see and describe this pattern of ours in exquisite detail in 1942, for crying out loud, and here we are, at the tail end of a long chain of follies, and we still can’t see it. The more their Cassandra-like prophecies come true, the less willing we are to admit that they are in fact coming true.
Lewis was not able to describe this pattern because he knew the 2020’s. He was able to describe this pattern because he knew and understood human beings, and human behavior. We do not understand human beings and human behavior. Or, perhaps it would be better to say that we understand human beings and behavior in other times, and other eras. But when it comes to our own foibles, our own fashions of thought, our own blinders, we give ourselves a pass. And we do it with a great deal of serenity, because we are enlightened, and quite above it all.
We look at (say) medieval folks stampeding about something that spooked them, and we, the enlightened moderns, say something like ho ho ho. But then our own moral panics, our own mass formation psychoses, our own culture-wide cases of the jim jams, are completely invisible to us.
Some in the Big Eva orbit are only pretending to not see. They do see, and are actually on the other side. But many others are sweet Christian people who have obviously had no training in resisting “fashions of thought.” We should be more than willing to fellowship with them, to come to the Lord’s Table with them, and to extend the right hand of fellowship to them. Of course.
But I can do all of those things to a sound Christian man, and still not want to make him the quarterback. If I am the Christian owner of an NFL team, and I have a solid Christian man who wants to be the quarterback, the fact that he is justified is important to me, but I still want to know if he can read the field.
And if the last couple of seasons has revealed anything, it has revealed that the Christian league has a host of quarterbacks who cannot read the field.