I wanted to start with a quick tribute to Rob McCall, who passed away a week ago today.
Rob was the host of the Awanadjo Almanack, a weekly short radio segment that I came to love after hearing it on WERU, the community radio station in mid-coast Maine. You can listen to an archive of these 5-minute or so segments here. I recommend it.
Maine painter and writer Robert Shetterly wrote this in his tribute to Rob:
Rob paid extraordinarily close attention to all the miraculous phenomena of nature and equally close attention to the frequently dispiriting behavior of humans. He gently, but adamantly, encouraged members of this community to perceive more closely and act more generously. It is not an exaggeration to say that he changed the ethos of this place. In a democratic society how people act, what they choose to protect, what values they bring to important decisions, who they choose as leaders, how humble or arrogant or prejudiced or kind they are with others depends to a great extent on the quality of their teachers. The truths they tell. Rob McCall was a quintessential teacher.
We have listened to WERU year round for the last several years. And so my memory of Rob McCall will be the many mornings I stopped what I was doing — usually making coffee — to turn up the radio and listen more closely to his deep wisdom. He is one of the writers, thinkers and artists who have tended to my broken heart and frazzled nerves over the past several years, primarily by helping me connect more deeply to loving this world as much as God does. How the hell did we miss that? For God so loved the world ...
McCall was one of a special group: Wendell Berry. Suzannah Lessard. E.B. White. Kate DiCamillo. Flannery O’Connor. Mako Fujimura. Percy Walker. Graham Greene. Neil King Jr. Anthony Bourdain. L’Engle. Jeff Tweedy. There are others. I am so grateful to them for showing me the beauty and mystery of our lives, right now; of the restorative regenerative power of the natural world; and of the power of love.
May Rob rest in peace. His impact has only begun to be felt.
My interview on “Morning Joe” about Testimony
I went on Morning Joe Thursday morning, expecting to be on for the usual 3 to 5 minutes. They kept going and the segment lasted 15 minutes, which was really nice publicity for the book. You can watch the full segment here, and below is a short clip that I think really encapsulates one of the core messages of the book.
The Christianity Today Review
Over at Christianity Today magazine, an editor and writer who works at Christian publisher Crossway has published a review of Testimony, which you can read here. He also wrote an addendum to his review on his Substack, which you can read here.
It's a critical review, and while I like people telling me how great the book is, I also appreciate constructive criticism. Yes, criticism engages the ego, but the task is to put that aside — as much as possible — spit out the bones and retain the meat.
For example, even though many of Hugh Hewitt's questions were silly, he raised some challenges to me that I thought about for several days. It helped me refine my thinking. I've always believed that "collision brings light." I write in the book that part of the reason I felt suffocated by church culture was the lack of disagreement and different points of view. Disagreement and constructive debate — and even conflict — are uncomfortable but often help us grow.
I even can get something out of less constructive criticism, such as this review by Samuel James. It’s given me food for thought, but the review is marred by the fact that James gets a few fundamental things very wrong. In fact, he was so glaringly off in basic matters of fact that it made me wonder why. And while he objects to what he says is my confidence in my point of view, I actually wonder if it is my critique of certainty – especially about matters of faith that we can’t ultimately prove one way or another – that bothered him.
The first major error is James’ contention that there is an "absence of self-critique" in my book. There are so many examples to disprove this that I don't really know where to start. I include numerous stories and anecdotes that demonstrate times where I was wrong, or made mistakes. I agonize over ways I've been an insufficient husband, or a self-righteous Pharisee, and I tell one particularly painful story of a time where I wronged my parents over a political dispute.
I also reflect on the tendency to think too highly of my own point of view, and note that this is in part a product of my upbringing.
"This is not a tale," I write in the introduction, "of growing up amid corrupt charlatans who used the name of God to amass riches. The leaders in my world were true believers whose intensity of belief blinded them to their errors. It’s the same road I am still prone to go down even now in the way I critique the evangelicalism I have left behind."
I also argue that "first and foremost, truth-seekers don’t search for battles out- side themselves to win. Instead, they examine their own point of view, searching for holes, weaknesses, errors." That is how I'm seeking to interrogate the way I see the world now. So while there's always room to improve, I don't think I suffer from an absence of self-critique. If anything, it's the opposite. Self-critique is where I live every day, for better or worse.
What's curious is how James missed the many examples of self-critique. I don't know. Maybe my critiques of my past self feel to James like a critique of his present self. James writes in his addendum that the book "confused, grieved, frustrated, and alienated me, all while eliciting a sense of solidarity due to our very similar backgrounds.”
"Reading his reflections on his upbringing in conservative evangelicalism felt at times like reading an alternative history of myself—a multiverse glimpse that I recoiled from,” he writes.
But set self-critique aside. James also claims that I demonstrate "contempt for the people and places of [my] past."
Again, there are many examples to demonstrate the opposite. For example, I write that "I was trained to hear [the voice of God] when I was a child, and this was a great gift." I also note that "evangelicals have incredible spiritual resources available to them: their heart connection to God gives them immense power for good."
James provides only two anecdotes in his CT review to back up his claims. In one, he misses the point of a story about my dad. It was intended to demonstrate my dad's humility and authenticity, but he interprets it as an assertion of my own "incisiveness." Well, no. My dad agreed with my statement in the moment, and he showed a level of respect for his own child that I find remarkable. The other anecdote is a bizarre assumption on James' part that he knows more about my mother's life story than I do.
The most egregious misreading is in the Substack addendum. James cites the somewhat infamous passage about the cringe-worthy men's accountability meetings in Starbucks as an example of how "brazenly [Ward] holds his pastors and even his friends in contempt for genuinely believing."
"[Ward] writes … how (despite his membership in the group) he was rolling his eyes the whole time at his buddies’ desperation and struggles," James writes. "Here’s the thing: I don't actually believe that Jon was rolling his eyes in those meetings. I believe that, right now, he wishes he had rolled his eyes, and that this desire—the desire to be far, far away from anything that touches conservative Christian theology or politics—is revising his personal history."
Oy. This is so far off the mark. It just completely skips over the majority of what I actually wrote here and distorts the story. Yes, I describe my discomfort in these moments, and note that I did not enjoy them.
"Why do we do this in a Starbucks? I often thought. Why are we sitting in public talking about this? Maybe I wondered why we did it at all."
Note that I raise a question here that I ever even doubted, in those moments, why we were doing these meetings. The point is that if I ever questioned the fundamental purpose or meaning of these meetings, I don’t remember doing so.
And then right alongside these feelings of anxiety, I describe how "in those situations, my approach was to jump in, because if I didn’t, I was giving in to what we called 'fear of man.'" That is a story of total participation, along with an explanation of my internal logic for doing so.
I also quote from a journal entry from that time. “I want so much to be filled with passion for Jesus every day, yet my flesh is so weak,” I wrote on May 30, 1997. “I must continually be renewed by dwelling in God’s presence and on his word.”
There is no sneering or eye-rolling here. When I write about these meetings, I am both explaining the thought process and describing the way I think about them now. But there is no evidence in the text that I was anything other than a whole-hearted participant at the time. The fact that I was highly uncomfortable in these meetings — and yet was still often first to participate — is Exhibit A of my level of investment and belief. All of us were uncomfortable. But I was among the most aggressive in pushing past that discomfort, because I was so invested. James response is a failure of reading comprehension.
And hey, I've read things, or heard people say things, and missed key details or context, and misinterpreted it. We've all done that. But I've also learned in my profession to double- and triple-check things to make sure I haven't missed stuff. (Best recent example: when I completely overlooked a key phrase in Tucker Carlson's Patriot Purge, I caught it after I texted Tucker multiple times to ask him about it.)
James thinks I am too sure of myself now. I'm sure he’s right to some degree, because we all err in this way. But saying that I'm too sure of my views is not really much an argument, especially if the evidence is lacking. Essentially he thinks I have a bad attitude: I'm not grateful enough; I’m too negative. That’s his opinion and he’s welcome to it. But it reminds me of the nebulous, capricious, subjective critiques that dogmatic types use to try to keep others in line or dismiss criticism.
My critique of conservative evangelicalism is ultimately about the need for less certainty (and more faith).
"We know truth more fully when we realize it is not easily found. It is elusive and multifaceted," I write. "Truth starts with the questions. It requires an openness—to other points of view and experiences, to being wrong, to changing one’s mind," I argue in the book. "To struggle toward truth, to refuse easy answers, and to remain in a place where uncertainty and complexity present ongoing challenges—that seems closer to what Jesus would want. It would require a more active reliance on God in everyday life for those who claim the name of Christian."
What might make James most uncomfortable is the way I apply this lens to faith. Over time I have grown away from a doctrinaire approach to faith. I've concluded that if I say I know God exists — there's no doubt in my mind that he exists — I've eliminated the need for faith. Personally, I don't have a lot of doubt that there is a God. I have some, but generally I have the gift of faith to believe in God. But I could be wrong, and I can't prove to you that I'm right!
But in 2020, I saw Christians who are often dogmatic about matters of religion – things we can’t prove – turn into relativists regarding things we did have proof for: that the election was not stolen and that the smartest, safest way to reopen society was to take common sense measures like mask-wearing and social distancing. These were prime examples that the evangelical church has failed to disciple its followers in discernment and public character.
Even if I don't see any evidence here of contempt on my part, it is good to be reminded that slipping into such an attitude is always a temptation. That's something, and I’m glad to be alerted to it once again. So there's one takeaway. I know there will be plenty more in the coming weeks and years. That's the journey.
On Tucker Carlson
Of everything written about Tucker this week after he was exited from Fox News, it was actually these words in a Dispatch roundup — Tucker’s own — that stood out to me the most.
“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights,” Carlson wrote in a text sent on January 4, 2021. “I truly can't wait,” he added, declaring, "I hate him passionately.” And summarizing the Trump presidency, he wrote in another message: “That’s the last four years. We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There isn’t really an upside to Trump.”
I think it shows as well as anything else what he became, given the sharp contrast between his public statements and this, his true thoughts. And then you add to that the core of his schtick: that he’s telling you — the audience — the real deal, the real truth, unlike all these other losers.
The whole thing makes me sad because the person I knew a decade ago is unrecognizable. I don’t have a lot of very concrete emotions or takes. All of us are vulnerable at some level to moral corruption in pursuit of power and fame and wealth. But I’m not really sure I ever got a sense that he deeply believed anything at his core. I did and do believe that one of his core principles is that he loves his wife and kids and his friends. But I’m not sure what else are his fundamental set of principles, and that’s important to limit the amount of shape-shifting any of us do. It reminds me of when I asked Sen. Lindsey Graham a question about his personal principles:
Me: What’s your code? Do you have one?
Me: You don’t have a code?
Graham: A code for what? Phone?
Me: Your personal code!
Graham: Personal code? What do you mean?
Me: I’m not asking for the iPhone login! Do you have a personal code, like a personal motto?
Graham: Oh oh oh, ok. That’s really a good question … the golden rule is pretty hard to beat.
That really happened. Here’s the piece I wrote about my trip with Graham which included driving him through a blizzard in New Hampshire.
Why is Florida the only state to pass a full-on ‘curricula ban’? by me, for Yahoo News
After I wrote about the progressive shout down at Stanford Law of Judge Kyle Duncan, I looked into what state legislatures are doing on free speech and freedom of thought. Turns out the most ideologically independent — and in my mind reliable — free speech group (The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) identifies Florida as the most aggressive in trying to restrict freedom of speech and freedom of thought in public universities.
FIRE’s Steinbaugh said that proponents of the Florida law “are unwittingly arming their enemies.”
“Granting campus censors (high or petty) expanded authority will only reinforce campus orthodoxy — or, at best, trade one orthodoxy for another. Officials given more authority will wield it against unpopular speech, which conservatives will be unsurprised to learn often means suppressing conservative-minded speakers.”
Chris Stirewalt on DeSantis failing to be a Trump-lite, for The Dispatch
Biden is so far cruising to renomination and Republicans are still stuck in 2020. “I am your retribution,” Trump has promised his voters, and they are ready to get some blood on their hands—figuratively, of course—to help him. And the prosecution of Trump for financial disclosure crimes in New York is just the latest wrong they want to avenge. This is the Trump way, and lots of Republicans love it.
Five Reasons Why Biden Might Lose in 2024, by Ruy Texeira for The Liberal Patriot
Biden really is an extraordinarily weak candidate
Trump may be a stronger opponent than Democrats expect
Biden and the Democrats have not moved to the center on cultural issues
Abortion may not be the silver bullet many Democrats assume it will be in 2024
There is a working-class sized hole in Biden’s re-elect strategy
The GOP wonks trying to get their party not to detonate the debt limit bomb, by Jeff Stein for The Washington Post
Stein writes a nice piece about the “increasingly personal spat among conservative policy nerds” that “could have big implications as U.S. nears economic disaster.”
Two portions stood out:
“We are going to have demand that the cuts be enacted, or Joe Biden doesn’t get a dime of his debt limit,” Vought said recently on the podcast of former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon.
Similarly, former Trump economist Kevin Hassett has said the federal debt poses such a severe crisis to the country that the risk of defaulting is worthwhile. The Trump administration added more than $5 trillion to the national debt — most of which occurred while Hassett was chief White House economist.
Bolded emphasis is mine. The debt limit is not a partisan issue. It’s not Biden’s debt limit. It’s ours. It’s an American problem. We’ve all run up the credit card and collectively we have to get our financial house in order.
And then this was an interesting insight into two of the budget experts on different sides of this debate:
Riedl sees danger in Vought’s approach.
“The Russ Vought types — I think some of it is, there is a certain appeal to being loud, pure and aggressive. It gets you a lot of attention; you don’t have to get into messy compromise; it raises a lot of money from donors and you can kind of act tough without having to take much responsibility for catastrophe that may follow,” Riedl said. “I understand where they’re coming from for a personal and psychological perspective to demand some purity test on everyone and say the other side will just surrender — yes, that must be an easy thing to do. But I try to take a little more responsibility.”
Vought responded in a statement: “I’m entirely not surprised that people who have failed to cut spending for the last 20 years are upset with a different strategy.”
I know Riedl better than Vought, but am familiar with both. I can say this with certainty. Vought is far more of a political animal than Riedl is. Vought is as much a culture warrior as he is a policy expert. Riedl is very conservative and that impacts his policy views, but he’s not involved in trying to play at national political maneuvering.
And it’s more than a little rich that Vought knocks Riedl for failing to cut spending when, again, the Trump administration he worked in “added more than $5 trillion to the national debt.”
Last thing: Brian Blade, the amazing drummer and bandleader who I wrote about last year, has an album out today, called Mama Rosa. Some very nice tunes on there, including this gorgeous tune:
Also check out this drum solo from Brian:
All right, that’s it folks. Have a great weekend!
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Quite a smorgasbord of info! Thanks!!
James' argument seems to come from the same camp of folks who think people deconstruct because it is "sexy" or "fun." In my limited experience, it often seems like that crowd views deconstructing (a word I don't particularly care for, but it gets the point across) and deconversion as one and the same. This is often far more telling than I think they realize, given that most people are not deconstructing a belief in Jesus, but instead, all the ancillary junk that comes with white American evangelicalism, like meeting in a public Starbucks to discuss how many times you watched porn last week.