There’s a lot of book-related content in the e-mail today. That won’t always be the case, but we’re still 2.5 weeks out from release day, and there are a lot of newer subscribers who are clearly coming here because of Testimony (welcome to all of you new subscribers!).
But first, I wanted to share a brief quote I stumbled across this week. It’s poignant for me in light of the way I’ve written about my own family and parents.
It’s from Bruce Springsteen:
“We honor our parents by not accepting as the final equation the most troubling characteristics of our relationship … You work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you. That takes hard work and a lot of love. But it’s the way we lessen the burdens our children have to carry … I work to be an ancestor. I hope my summation will be written by my sons and daughters, with our families help, and their sons and daughters with their guidance.”
There is pain, wonder and joy in family, in childhood and parenthood. It’s all there.
There’s a key word in Springsteen’s view of redeeming and growing our relationships with our parents and our offspring. It’s this: work. But there’s another one too of course: love.
I almost didn’t include this, but I sent this quote to Jim Axelrod, a CBS News correspondent and a friend of mine, because last weekend he aired an interview with Springsteen about the 1982 album, Nebraska. Axelrod sat with Bruce in the same rental house bedroom where Bruce recorded most of that album himself while grappling with what he called his “first real major depression.”
From the CBS piece:
Coming off a hugely successful tour for "The River" album, he had his first Top 10 hit, "Hungry Heart." He was 32, a genuine rock star surrounded by success, and learning its limits.
Axelrod said, "Your rock 'n' roll meds, singing in front of 40,000 people, all that is, is anesthesia."
"Yeah, and it worked for me," Springsteen said. "I think in your 20s, a lotta things work for you. Your 30s is where you start to become an adult. Suddenly I looked around and said, 'Where is everything? Where is my home? Where is my partner? Where are the sons or daughters that I thought I might have someday?' And I realized none of those things are there.
You can see how these themes of balancing success and family are personal to Springsteen.
These things are also personal to Axelrod. Twelve years ago he wrote a book called In the Long Run: A Father, a Son, and Unintentional Lessons in Happiness. I read it — devoured it really — and wrote a review for The Huffington Post. It’s such a great book.
At that time — when I read it — I was 33. Our children were 4 and 2. I was traveling more than I ever had before or have since, covering the 2012 presidential campaign. Ali was pregnant with our third child. She was struggling, far more than I knew or realized at the time. It would take some time before I learned how dark those days were for her.
Jim’s book is about how he had made choices in his career that shortchanged his family, and how he learned from that. He reflects on his own relationship with his father. It’s so good ya’ll.
Looking back, I think this book by Axelrod was a huge signpost at this point in my life that helped me resolve to do better. It strengthened my conviction that I had to find a way to put my family first, ahead of career and ambition.
I ended the review this way:
“It's only either failure or some combination of continual awareness, grace and a little luck that keeps the ambitious -- in this case those in power and close to it in Washington -- from losing their minds and sacrificing what's most important. As a husband and father who also happens to be a political reporter assigned to cover the 2012 presidential election, I read Axelrod's book closely, hoping to learn from his mistakes so I don't make them myself, and grateful to him for his honesty and courage to own up to his failures.
It won't be easy. I'm doing a final edit of this book review from a coffee shop in Concord, N.H., after racing around the state for the last 24 hours chasing Jon Huntsman. And the Granite State won't even hold its primary for close to a year. But like each trip so far, I'm not wasting any time on the road. Huntsman will be here three more days, but I'll be home tonight. If I miss anything, that is a price worth paying to be with my wife and kids this weekend.”
Thank you Jim for writing that book.
We Know Better
I turned on Dan Koch’s recent episode on Jesus people music (1967-1979), and in the first few minutes, he mentioned something that pops up a lot, thematically, in Testimony. Dan is describing here the thinking that went into the creation of the Christian music industry:
“Parallel institutions, which are a big part of how I understand even the Trump evangelical thing … Evangelicals trained themselves to utilize their own institutions, parallel from the mainstream .. So why do a bunch of Christians like Newsmax and trust it more than CNN or ABC News? That’s part of the explanation. They trained themselves to listen to Focus on the Family rather than other childhood experts.”
I write throughout Testimony about how my upbringing was siloed off from contact with those not like us. But Dan’s point about “parallel institutions” is really key to understanding how thoroughly Christians can wall themselves off from different points of view, even if they appear to be living your average normal daily existence.
Up until the last decade or so, it was harder than it is now for people to completely isolate from those who think differently. But evangelicals certainly had a thriving, slightly off-the-radar sub-culture: the Christian music industry, political newsletters from Ralph Reed, family counseling types like Dobson, etc, who all capitalized on the hunger for a “uniquely Christian” perspective.
And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get input and advice on how to apply your faith to daily life. In fact I think it’s great!
But Dan’s point about Newsmax seems on point to me. It’s one thing to be integrating a faith perspective into a larger conversation. But so much of evangelicalism’s DNA, going back hundreds of years, is also imbued with a distrust of “the establishment,” institutions, expertise, and the like. Frances Fitzgerald’s book The Evangelicals is one of several that documents the way that evangelicalism grew in America in the 18th century in reaction to established congregations of the Church of England that “were essentially fiefdoms of local gentry and identified with a class system that sharply distinguished the aristocrats from common people and slaves” (p. 23).
In addition, Fitzgerald writes:
“Frontier revivalists … to reach their audience in a world without churches … created new methods of proselytism and a simplified form of evangelicalism: a folk religion characterized by disdain for authority and tradition” (p. 25).
I think these historical roots explain how a desire for a Christian perspective on life, and a creation of parallel institutions, often is twisted and disfigured by a feeling of “we know better.”
And then you consider another element that contributes to this feeling of superiority (coupled with a haunting, lurking sense of inferiority): the way that evangelicalism is a “religion of the heart,” with a particular emphasis on personal emotional experience. It’s no secret that charismatic experience can lead those who experience it to feel as if they have found a level of insight that is deeper than any other tradition or stream of the faith.
And so a few things have happened over the last half-century that have led many evangelicals and conservatives to live in an alternative news universe. You already had an American evangelical tradition with deep suspicion and antipathy toward those perceived as elites, and established knowledge.
You layer on top of that the Republican party’s capture of evangelicals through a laser-like focus on abortion as a politically mobilizing issue. The Republican party has been using the media as a punching bag since at least Barry Goldwater in the early 60’s. The media does lean left, and is not all that religiously observant (though there are many people of faith, Christian and other, in media). So evangelicals have for decades been trained to think of the mainstream media as the enemy.
And then you move into the story of the last 15 to 20 years, which has accelerated into hyper drive over the last decade: the splintering of media and news sources into a thousand million pieces.
Now, a 55-year old Frank Smith in Idaho can get all his information from sources that reinforce his bias. So can 21-year old Frank Smith in New York City by the way. Both are actually living in physical spaces where they don’t encounter many different points of view, and are also increasingly only hearing voices on or about the news that do the same. It’s not good if anyone is living in a bubble. But I guess my reason for singling out evangelicals has been that I was raised inside this group, and the very teachings of the faith that this group taught me compel me to say that even if others are not doing what’s right, it’s still our obligation to make our best effort to do so.
And yet, doing better is not knowing better. Doing better is only possible, in fact, if we are humble. That phrase — “we know better” — kept ringing through my head. It’s behind a lot of mistakes I saw our church make during my lifetime. I think it’s a reason why the church mishandled abuse cases. This is pure, but somewhat informed speculation: but I look at the Catholic abuse scandal and I see a powerful institution protecting itself. And probably I’m overlooking or somewhat uninformed/unaware of the ways that spiritual pride played a role as well.
But when I look at the Sovereign Grace scandals, I see mostly spiritual pride. So it’s probably not either or: institutional self-protection or spiritual pride. It’s both. But I see “we know better” as driving the church I grew up in.
And I see “we know better” in the way a lot of evangelicals interact with non-Christians and with Democrats.
What’s my proposed alternative? Well, I guess I see faith as something I need faith for, rather than something I can prove. I see truth as something I pursue, rather than something I posses. And when I start there, I know I have a lot to learn from everyone, and anyone can teach me something. For me, that’s where it starts, and it all flows from there.
And if someone has really worked hard to become an expert at something, or if an institution has created a rigorous process for excellence in truth-seeking or discovery, I don’t have to share their religious beliefs — or their political beliefs — to elevate their opinion or insight above that of others who might think more like me on matters of faith or basic political leanings.
I sometimes saw, in the old church days, people using plumbers or real estate agents or mechanics because they knew them through the church. To that, my instinctive response has always been: can they do the job, and do it well? If so, great. If not, I’m going somewhere else.
TV for Testimony
I did MSNBC and CNN back to back Sunday evening. Full interviews are here and here. An Instagram clip from my conversation with Alicia Menendez on MSNBC is below and below that is video of the full CNN interview with Jim Acosta. I felt like I hit some key, core points quite concisely in both these interviews, which were both the more typical TV length of 3-5 minutes.
“I’m So Glad It Exists”
Joel Wentz at “Books and Big Ideas” has a really cool 10-minute video that he did after reading Testimony. I appreciated how he noticed my struggle to balance criticism with empathy. It’s nicely done as well. I’m now a subscriber to his YouTube feed.
I’ll also say that when I hear someone say of my book — “I’m so glad it exists” — that alone makes writing it worthwhile. I am so happy to have brought joy and meaning in some way to another person. That is why we create!!
On Facebook, a fellow named Sean Thomas wrote that the book brought “waves of emotion” and that he sobbed when he finished. I don’t know Sean, but we do have a mutual friend or two.
Anyway, Thomas cites a quote that is often attributed to C.S. Lewis (which apparently he did not actually say or write, but which does not really affect the meaning or import here): “We read to know we are not alone.”
And Thomas writes:
Thank you to Jon Ward for reminding me that loneliness and aloneness are not the same, and there is a communion of people who are walking this path together.
It brought to mind the endorsement that Charlie Peacock — a Nashville record producer and musical artist who has worked with Amy Grant, Switchfoot, The Civil Wars, Chris Cornell, the Lone Bellow, Ben Rector, and many others — generously provided for Testimony.
“While the book holds important and meaningful content, it also functions in an atypical way. It’s an antidote to loneliness and heartbreak. To read it is to participate in a circle of trust where you are not alone, you’re not going crazy, and all is NOT well. This is a form of setting things right - a move toward rightness.”
I’ve been getting a lot of feedback like this.
Thank you for telling my story.
I feel seen.
I’m not crazy.
If that’s you, I hope you tell your story too. Because it will help someone else, just like Jim Axelrod’s book helped me.
"Shaken and Heartsick"- Another Professor at a Christian University Fired for Racial Justice Teachings by Jemar Tisby at his Substack, Footnotes
I’d been teaching my composition course using the theme of racial justice for over 30 years; I had not only been positively reviewed where I’d taught but also had been promoted twice and issued annual contracts without fail.
And most recently, at Taylor, I’d been promised that I wouldn’t have to undergo another review for several more years, as good as it gets for a non-tenured professor like me.
Yet, on January 27, 2023, that all changed.
Disney v. DeSantis: How Strong Is the Company’s Lawsuit? by David French for The New York Times
“Laws are not holy writ, and if the First Amendment protects anything, it protects our ability to object to the laws passed to govern our states and our nation … A Disney defeat would represent a dangerous reversal in First Amendment jurisprudence and cast a pall of fear over private expression. In its complaint, Disney wrote, “In America the government cannot punish you for speaking your mind.” That is true now and will remain so if Disney wins its case. If Disney loses, on the other hand, America’s first liberty will be at risk, and the culture wars will escalate out of control.”
The Case for Staying Hopeful by Isaac Willour, on his Substack The Unafraid
"Haidt argues that one of the most pernicious ideas in modern society is that life is a battle between bad people and good people. It’s a key indicator of being the worst kind of political ideologue—as Soviet political prisoner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously noted, the line between good and evil goes through every human being, and that includes you and me.”
“Rapture theology, invented in 1840s, was embraced by white evangelicals in 1860s bc it gave a 'biblical' excuse to not take a side re: slavery, racism, & reconstruction. Just one bomb dropped in @philvischer's interview of @danielghummel. Don't miss this!” - @skyejethani on Twitter, linking to this interview:
That’s it for me this week. I hope you have a great weekend!
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Scot McKnight just posted on his Substack about Testimony. https://scotmcknight.substack.com/p/testimony-of-a-journey