Not a Cold Eye

The works of Flannery O’Connor are not for everyone. A fair number of fellow readers that I’ve encountered have been repulsed by her violent style, her grotesque images, and her gothic setting. This is fair enough, I suppose. Some of these readers, though, are discerning enough to recognize her virtues even while not preferring them for themselves. This latter group tend to be religious and literary.

Marilynne Robinson (AP)

Marilynne Robinson (AP)

It was especially disappointing to me, though, to read Marilynne Robinson’s rather cutting remarks towards St. Flannery in her New York Times interview. Frankly, I was shocked that a writer like her—who very much occupies the categories of “religious” and “literary”—should so flatly misunderstand O’Connor. “Her prose is beautiful, her imagination appalls me.” Truly? Has Robinson ever really read this author? To begin with, O’Connor’s prose is hardly beautiful. Plenty of authors outshine her in mere aesthetic form. But Robinson’s second proposition is correct: O’Connor’s imagination is often appalling. But this is merely to state the obvious. It’s like describing a stonemason’s gargoyle: “The stonework is so very fine! But does it have to depict something so—hauntingly absurd?” Yes. It does. O’Connor’s work is not solely populated by gargoyles; but it does feature them pretty routinely. Robinson, being a rural mainline Presbyterian, just doesn’t understand what gargoyles are for.

But Robinson’s worst comment was her personal remark that O’Connor viewed “religion” with a cold eye. Well, maybe she did view “religion” coldly. But not the Christian religion. Fatal baptisms; flaming visions; bloody redemptions, all. Her eye may be called cruel, but not cold.

To misunderstand the grotesque in O’Connor is a failure of understanding, but to miss the good in her stories is a failure of imagination. Her stories are filled with good, though not of a kind Robinson seems to be familiar with.

It has been years since I have read Robinson’s work, so perhaps a more careful reader of Robinson may stumble across this article and correct me. But as I recall, Robinson’s good is largely that of a charming Protestant reverie. It is the good of Emily Dickinson.

Flannery O'Connor (self-portrait)

Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor’s good is not like this. The good in her stories is like that found in Old Testament, with the God of Moses and Elijah; the God of revelation and not of reverie. It is not the good of “religion.” It is the good of the prophets.

And this is what I find so perplexing about Robinson’s remarks: doesn’t she know that good is a terrifying thing? O’Connor clearly does—and that is why her prose is so shocking. She knows it like C.S. Lewis does, or Charles Williams. But Robinson’s good? It is the familiar good. It is the recognizable good. I’m not so sure she knows that good can be terrifying. If she did, she might have recognized it in O’Connor.

“The church ought to be doing [x] instead of obsessing over sex.”

Part 3 of Will Barrett’s series on “The Intra-Evangelical Culture War.”

The X could be any number of good and important things the church ought to be doing. Most likely, it means feeding the poor, healing the sick, promoting racial reconciliation, or agitating against economic injustice. It it is possible that some churches neglect their part in these activities, but to point this out in a dialogue about sexual morality serves no purpose but to divert attention away from the question at hand with an irrelevant attack on the credibility of the opponent.

Imagine a formal debate in which one speaker declares that both sides would be better served by calling off the debate in favor of doing something more constructive. Then, after his opponent leaves the room, he proceeds to stump for his own point of view on the issue. This is precisely the tactic some progressive Christians use when faced with conservative arguments about the morality and theology of sex. Although they may complain that conservatives are taking too much time away from works of justice and mercy to preach about sex, I have yet to hear of any sexually progressive Christian commentator hold his own advocacy to the same standard.

Perhaps this is because progressives view sexual liberation as a work of Christian compassion. This is completely within the bounds of debate—but many conservatives are equally convinced that traditional Christian sexual mores are ultimately more compassionate and just than the modern alternatives. Ultimately, we cannot avoid arguing each case on its merits.

Why don’t progressives notice this plank in their eye? They seem unable, even for the purpose of debate, to bracket their assumption that conservative sexual mores represent oppression. In their minds, their own opposition to conservative sexual mores amounts to fulfillment of the Christian duties that they accuse their opponents of neglecting.

Of course one may sincerely believe that conservative sexual mores are bad for people, but Christian liberals seem to forget that their interlocutors sincerely believe the opposite. That’s what the argument is all about in the first place. But some liberal Christians treat “resisting oppression,” including the oppression of conservative sexual mores, as a check mark on the side of charity, even when such “resistance” only amounts to loudly expressing disapproval for a particular teaching of the church. They adopt a double standard: lamenting charity as the casualty of the culture war, but only when conservatives are the ones waging it. Talking about sexuality distracts from more important aims—unless liberals are the ones talking.

It is outside the scope of this essay to dislodge the intractable assumption that conservative ideas always and everywhere represent oppression. My purpose in bringing it up is to show how it intrudes upon honest debate to insist on dismissing the discussion in favor of paying more attention to “the things that really matter.” How a church spends its time and resources is a vital concern, and one that deserves more respect than to be used as a red herring to slap traditionalists in the face with.

It is childish and unfair to call a debate and then rebuke one’s opponent for showing up. Pile on the unquestioned assumption that conservative views represent an entrenched system of institutional oppression, and distractions flourish. With this confirmation bias, all conservative conferences, think tanks, and corporate sponsors immediately appear, in the eye of the liberal beholder, to be secret guilds peddling an insidious, authoritarian agenda, wasting money that could have been spent on nobler pursuits to score meaningless political points.

The rhetorical tactic of “following the money trail” does nothing more than expose how the sausage of “democracy” is really made, but it raises the specter of conspiracy. This was recently seen in the negative media attention surrounding “The Economics of Sex,” an animated video presentation of research by the Austin Institute. Every liberal reaction I read said exactly nothing about the film’s argument, only that it was funded by some pretty lame cats who have also funded some other pretty lame things.

There is also a more covert, though quite widespread prejudice that cultivating liberal attitudes toward social issues necessarily places one in the camp of compassion, and that holding right-leaning opinions on those same issues places one at an ethical disadvantage. A conservative needs to prove an extraordinary degree of personal altruism in order to be perceived as anything other than a bourgeois pig wallowing in privilege, while all a liberal has to do to prove goodwill is wear clothing associated with the working class. Conservative opinions about sex are subjected to a kind of indentured servitude: you aren’t free to talk about anything until you’ve paid up a large deficit of good will to “the marginalized.”

This prejudice works on the mind to make statements of conservative opinions or beliefs on sexual issues seem not only reprehensible, but coming at the expense of goods that conservatives are thought not to care about. But this is, once again, slyly changing the channel from sex to charity and implying that the opposition privileges one over the other. This tactic is not meant to encourage sincere and thoughtful conversation about the church’s social witness, but only to score a cheap and unrelated point by assuming that conservatives enter the discussion at the expense of other goods. Even if this were true, it has nothing to do with the discussion at hand about what proper sexual morality ought to be.

I don’t want to waste time here making an apologetic for conservative Christianity’s social witness. Conservatives don’t have it all together, but honestly, neither do liberals. The evangelical megachurch down the road may spend too much of its budget on ostentatious flat screens and espresso bars, but the Episcopal Church, one of Christianity’s most sexually progressive denominations, is spending millions on legal battles to wrest church property from small congregations who have parted from the church over its teaching on sexuality. No church is spending more on the culture wars than the Episcopal Church. (Meanwhile other more traditional churches, such as the Catholic Church, are actually feeding the hungry, healing the sick, opposing economic injustice, etc. . . .)

This too is beside the point. We could all stand to be more compassionate, to invite more people into our homes and be more generous when we give alms, instead of spending so much time and money on things that are perhaps less important. But as long as we’re having a discussion about Christian sexual mores, it does no good to evade it by first accusing the other side of not having their house in order when there is little evidence of the orderliness of one’s own. It leaves the accuser vulnerable to the same attack. Wouldn’t it be better if liberal Christians abandoned their polemical crusades for theological revisionism and full acceptance of sexual practices that the church has historically condemned in order to go serve the poor? The objection cuts both ways.


Do you think the author should have spent his time volunteering at a local charity instead of writing this essay? Leave a comment below!

Next week, Mr. Barrett will examine the objection: “Sexual sin shouldn’t be decried to the exclusion of other sins.”

Featured image: “Same Sex Marriage Debate” by Bill Stilwell (Flickr)


“The church is unhealthily obsessed with sex.”

Part 2 of Will Barrett’s series on the intra-evangelical culture war. Part 1 is here.

To have a decent argument that ends with a bow and a handshake, or maybe even a beer after the crowds have cleared, the parties involved must assume that both sides have come to the debate earnestly and with the best of intentions, even if they haven’t. In other words, both sides need to refrain from blaming the others’ motives for having the discussion in order to focus on the terms of the discussion itself. This limitation is even more important when one or both sides has reason to suspect that the other’s motives are rascally or base. To keep  the conversation from devolving  into tiresome defenses of honor, the arguers must agree to bracket out questions of motives.

New Atheist debaters like Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris regularly betray either their blissful ignorance of this guideline, or else an amusingly wilful disregard for it, when they regularly open debates over cosmology and first causes with charges that their theistic interlocutors just want to convert the audience to their chosen religion instead of helping them think for themselves. They probably do, but that is beside the point.

In the intra-evangelical culture wars, the liberal camp has lately displayed a wanton disregard for this first principle of debate whenever sex is the topic of discussion. Continue reading

Clearing the air in the intra-Evangelical culture war

The larger culture too often mistakes evangelical Christians for an unfractured conservative bloc. Many would be surprised to know about the culture wars that rage between liberal and conservative evangelical Christians. For instance, the advocacy of left-leaning evangelical groups is often reported as “a shift in evangelical culture” when in reality the same people have been saying the same things for a long time.

One would think that arguments between Christians about hot social topics would be more gracious and constructive than the venomous contest between the religious right and the secularist Left.

But is it? Evangelicalism’s internal culture war, between bloggers and authors like Rachel Held Evans and pastors like the recently ousted Mark Driscoll is lamentably hobbled by sloppy logic, red herrings, and an even firmer commitment to never having anything but an exchange of insults. The fond idea that the culture wars would not be so nasty if folks just got to know each other does not hold up in the case of the evangelical community, where the venom is even more poisonous for its thin coating of sentimentality. In fact, the culture wars rage within the evangelical world with a special viciousness, and this is probably to be expected. As anyone with siblings will attest, intimates tend to fight more often and with deeper malice. Continue reading

Hipster liturgists: or, Why I am an Episcopalian

There is a phenomenon which you have probably heard about if you are an evangelical Christian, which is that Young People These Days Are Really Into Liturgy.

Found on Steve Woodworth's page (click for link)

The Liturgical Hipster (found at Steve Woodworth’s blog)

Christianity Today may be responsible for this perception, since there has been a trend among its younger writers to promote liturgical forms of worship.  Now, the backlash has begun. In an online Christianity Today piece which basic anti-liturgical protestants are no doubt posting all over Facebook, writer Kirsten Guidero paints a picture of a liturgical service full of people who take Holy Communion and then hours later are back on the streets murdering people:

The service was undeniably beautiful. Dedicated pastors and volunteers had planned it for weeks. There were banners, incense, and altar decorations. The sanctuary was packed: more than 1,000 folks overflowed the seats, latecomers standing along the sides and back. The congregation participated with gusto. But after receiving Communion, they marched out of the sanctuary. By the closing hymn, only a few folks dotted the pews that just five minutes before had been filled to bursting.

Some left to cram in work, but many in this particular group were on their way to that night’s parties. In another five hours, many would be passed out on the couches of friends or strangers, a few would be rushed by ambulance for alcohol poisoning treatment, and, most horrific, some would be sexually assaulting their peers or suffering such violence. It was the weekend, and the community in question was a Christian university.

Now if any fool had actually been going around claiming that “liturgy” was going to replace discipleship, I can see why we would be having this conversation. Except precisely nobody is that stupid. Continue reading

Christian Songwriter’s Sexuality Shocker

NASHVILLE, TN—If you ever listen to Christian radio or attend contemporary worship services, you’ve heard his lyrics: “Jesus, I want you / I need your love / Set me on fire with one look from above.”

For many who have been intimately affected by worship songs like “Take Me Deeper” and “Surrender To Your Love”, it would be hard to believe that their author is a 41-year-old married heterosexual father of three who describes himself as “just your average straight guy who loves Jesus.”

Worshipers and music insiders have long assumed that the “Waves of Glory” songsmith was gay. But today, in a revealing, candid interview, the man behind many of today’s top Praise & Worship hits has spoken out for the first time about his sexuality. Continue reading

Conservatism and the End of the World

This week in The New Inquiry William Osterweil explores the recently prevalent “Ancient Apocalypse” film and TV genre. From Gladiator to Apocalypto to Noah to an endless shambling parade of zombie films, an Ancient Apocalypse doesn’t depict the literal end of the world, but situates its heroes at the end of an age, the downfall of a quasi-historical civilization. Osterweil explains:

There is a subnational social group: a tribe, city-state or family, living, if not happily, at least in stability and relative peace. That group receives a prophecy of a coming apocalypse. The prophecy proves true almost immediately, though it refers to the end of the world only insofar as it is the end of the group as currently constituted, the end of the group’s forms of life, the group’s world. This end is violent, sudden, and comes from the outside, in the form of natural disaster, foreign hordes, or rival groups with better technology—although its effects are exacerbated by internal decadence, corruption, weakness, willful ignorance, and/or betrayal.

At first blush, these apocalyptic fantasies may seem to promote conservative values. They feature strong heroic individuals who win survival or glory against all odds in the burning debris of a collapsed civilization. Continue reading

You’re doing it wrong

Clueless politicians on the right and left are trying to relate to our generation by unironically appropriating internet memes.

dogesuranceExhibit A: BIG GOVERNMENT TROLLING.

This appropriation of doge by the Department of Health and Human Services is the latest in a series of terrible attempts to use internet memes to make apathetic Millennials want to get health insurance. Previously featuring Pajama Boy, Brosurance, mom jeans, and so on.

Why does HHS think that doge will make people sign up for health insurance? And why do they seem so darn clueless about how stupid it looks?

Now lest you think this is a problem with rich, old, out of touch liberals, I present:


Get a selfie with Sarah Palin. A shout-out from Newt (eww). Snag some swag (Pictured: Obama bobbleheads). And if you still want to go to their conference after these horrors, you can enter to win an all-expenses-paid trip. Just click “I’m In.”

This isn’t what Millennials want (although we do take selfies, laugh at doge, and use memes—ironically—to make fun of people.

Republicans and the Obama administration are saving us the trouble.

By the way: the only young people who still think selfies are cool can’t vote yet. Stop trying, politicians. You’re making yourselves look bad.

You know what would be nice? If politicians started treating Millennials as adults, and behaving like adults themselves.

But maybe that’s too much to hope for from Baby Boomer politicians.