I had an intense experience last night, one I’m still trying to make sense of. It’s the intensity of it that mystifies me more than the specific content.

As you may recall, I was in a car accident earlier this month. Last night, I took my aching back to the gym for the first time since the wreck, and did some very light exercise (treadmill). While walking, I watched an episode of the Netflix dramatic series The Crown, which is about the early years of Elizabeth II’s reign. The episode I selected was one in which Winston Churchill, 80 years old and ailing, finally accepts his mortality and resigns his premiership. John Lithgow plays Churchill exquisitely in the series, capturing Churchill’s doggedness and vanity without ever making the great man a caricature. The tragic grandeur in this performance is how the qualities that served Churchill (and his nation, and Western civilization) so magnificently in its greatest crisis became a liability in trying to lead Britain in the postwar period.

The wifi wasn’t working perfectly in the gym last night, which made the Crown streaming on my iPad stop every so often. I fiddled with the controls a bit, but finally realized that there was nothing to be done except keep walking on the treadmill and wait for the program to load. While I was doing that, I noticed the TV hanging nearest to me on the wall. The gym had it locked onto MTV, which was broadcasting a reality program called Teen Mom 2. For some reason that television set was on mute, which meant I could read the dialogue.

I ended up watching segments of that show while waiting for the one on my iPad to load. It was horrible. I don’t suppose it was any worse than what Jerry Springer and Maury Povich have been putting on the air for a long time now, but I have been so divorced from mainstream pop culture for so long that I forgot how crappy it is.

This Teen Mom 2 show was a sleazy pageant of elaborately tattooed slatterns and the no-count men with whom they breed and on whom they cheat. To me, the most shocking thing about it was that the kind of behavior that when I was a kid was considered very low-class is now the sort of thing that — to judge by the houses these men and women live in, and the cars they drive — is totally middle class.

I would have assumed that a show like this would depict young women who got pregnant as unmarried teens, but who were working hard to take care of their child or children, and to get their lives on track. Nope, not really. True, some of them, at least, make an effort to do that, but they’re constantly sidetracked by their shocking immaturity, not least the inability to make a commitment to a man, or to find a man capable of making a commitment to them. This program at times featured men who were far too old to be dressing like high school boys, dressing like high school boys and talking about being players. Repulsive rabble, the lot. I ended up wondering what kind of mothers and fathers they were raised by — if they had a father in the picture at all.

The show made me angry, to be honest. Here were males and females capable of bringing new life into the world, but unwilling to do what is necessary to provide a decent upbringing for the little boys and girls for which they are responsible. This one young woman, Jenelle, tested positive for heroin use and lost custody of her son to her mother, and was shown on camera wailing about how the court ordered her to stop smoking pot and partying for a whole year.

My iPad’s streaming came back on, and I finally got to the end of that episode of The Crown, which ended with Churchill’s resignation. Coming home from the gym with my 12 year old son along (he had gone to exercise too), he asked me what was wrong. I told him that I had just watched part of a show about people behaving without conscience or nobility, and how shocking it was juxtaposed to the program about Churchill. My son knows something about World War II, and certainly knows who Churchill was. I told him that Churchill was a flawed man, but he was a real hero. He was a man of courage and vision, and his life shows us men how to behave when we are put to the test.

I told my son about the men — males, to be precise — in Teen Mom 2, and the dishonorable, selfish, no-count way they behave, and also about the no-good women they get involved with. Don’t be like that, I said. Never be like that. And stay away from women like that. 

I know, I know: there’s no real telling what’s true in a reality series, and what’s scripted. Still, judging by what is presented on this show, it’s a nightmare. It’s what you get when the family falls apart, when sexual norms collapse. We have to turn our backs on this culture, or it will swallow our children.

But “turning our backs” can only go so far. True, we have to keep ourselves and our kids from being absorbed by it, but if we are Christians, we can’t abandon the people who are victims of it. A friend sent me this wonderful 2004 essay from Touchstone, written by Mike Aquilina, about how the early church was centered in Christian families, and how the church grew because of the charity those families, as the church, showed to each other and to outsiders. To read the Aquilina piece is to realize that today, in a time of social dissolution — especially dissolution of the family — faithful Christians have a role to play in ministering to those who have been raised amid the moral and spiritual poverty of contemporary culture. Who will reach out to those kids who need stability? Who will reach out to the teen mothers (and fathers) who made a mistake, but who genuinely want to do the right thing, but need help?

Here’s the Benedict Option point I want to make: in order to be the church for these suffering, needy people, we are going to have to withdraw more cleanly from the degraded popular culture around us, and instead build up the hearts and minds of ourselves and our children within authentic Christian communities. We can’t simply say no to bad things (though we had better do that); we also have to say yes to good things.

An important thing I learned from reading Judith Rich Harris’s book The Nurture Assumption in my research for The Benedict Option: your child’s peer group is enormously important in forming his or her morals. Plus, you and your spouse’s own peer group is also important in forming your children’s moral imaginations, because you will be influenced a great deal by the norms your group embraces for themselves and their children. If you are a religious conservative who doesn’t adopt an adversarial stance towards contemporary pop culture, then the adversarial stance it has by nature towards you and what you hold sacred will win. If you don’t give your kids Winston Churchill (so to speak), they will get Teen Moms 2 instead.

These are the times in which we live. It takes a village to raise a child, but I want to get out of this village. That accounts for the intensity of what I felt last night watching those segments of the MTV show: the sense that this is poison, that the culture it represents is poison, and there can be no compromise with it. Alas, there’s no geographical escape from it either, not in the age of wifi and mass media. So we have to defect in place, building up our domestic monasteries.

UPDATE: Stunning comment from an anonymous reader:

It is absolutely true that as part of building a resilient community for ourselves and our children we must NOT abandon those suffering from a lack of community, family, knowledge of how to live well. These people on the TV are innocent because they don’t know any different. Really they are. I speak from first hand personal experience.

Three years ago a teen girl announced that our son was the father of her baby. Our son HAD dated her and had slept with her. He didn’t deny it but the dates were not quite right. It was a wake up call for our son but his response was to run away literally to the other side of the country.

Our response was to accept that maybe, just maybe this baby was our grandchild and until we knew differently, we would treat her as part of our family. It was a difficult thing to explain to our young children ages 9 and 11 but also a learning opportunity for them.

This “teen mom” was everything you saw on tv…a foster kid, with a drug addicted mother who had given birth to 9 kids herself, all of whom had been removed from her custody. Her dad was terribly neglectful. She did not have a CLUE about normal family life. But gosh she loved her baby daughter and even successfully breastfed her! This 17 year old black teen mother was trying to be a mother without any idea of what to do.

Eventually she ended up living with us. Many bad things happened and much suffering but through all of that we gave her as much love as we could and we fell in love with what we though MIGHT be our granddaughter

A DNA test finally showed that this little girl is not our grandchild.

But we have continued to love her and treat her as our grandchild, baby sit her, care for her, love her. Her mother has had an encounter with Christ through young life. She is still not sure how to live but she has seen an example of family life and is trying to emulate it. She knows Christ is the center of or the glue that holds our life in place and she wants that too.

I’m not trying to brag. I’m telling this story of an example of how we who already do have resilient community and family can and must care for those who don’t. And we don’t have to go out an search for people to care for. God wil bring them to us. We just have to do the right thing when He places that lost confused person in our path.

We could have abandoned that little girl when we learned she was not our son’s child. But we firmly believe that God brought her into our lives for some
Reason and we love her deeply. So even though we could rightly be done with her and her mother, we have instead committed to her for life. To me this is part of being pro-life and Christian.

We can’t fix all the teen moms and dysfunction. But we can, we must love the one person God puts in our life. It’s one at a time, this salvation thing. One at a time.

UPDATE.2: Reader Annie:

There’s the commenters saying this isn’t a big deal and it has always been going on and turn off your television because it’s distracting and we all just need to relax.

The foster care system here is snapping beneath new pressures, but it’s easy to ignore if you’ve always heard it’s stressed. There aren’t enough homes for the children. There aren’t enough relatives long enough in one place. The drugs, the brokenness, the belief that pure sensation is our purpose in life… all these contribute to the empty gazes and scarred faces I see. Say it’s not real, sure. I’ve lived in the elite centers, and worked in the no-go zones outside the gentrification circles. I know the difference between the comfortable and the broken, and I’m seeing more and more brokenness.

When I walk the streets of the dingy towns surrounding Pittsburgh, or when I glance at the local stories and arrests that come after front page politeness, I see a story unfolding of families falling apart that aren’t even families. It’s just broken people trying to catch one another, shifting alliances and living arrangements every few months. It’s children moving from parent to grandparent to foster parent to uncle with trash bags of mildewed clothing and it is a cycle that doesn’t stop.

When I talk to the aging progressive or conservative community leaders in those towns, I hear confusion and foreboding. No one, wherever they fall on the political spectrum, “feels good.” If Hillary had won, perhaps there’d be a false euphoria. Certainly much of their hysteria is a result of pernicious comfort and entitled expectations. And there is certainly a false confidence amongst the Trump supporters. But there is no one among them who says things are well, or who denies we are living beneath strange, new winds. We all know.

There’s a crisis, but some people want to say because there have always been tough times or places, it’s impossible that things could get worse. That’s simply not true. It’s wiser to admit we don’t entirely understand what is afoot than to tell Rod to fiddle while the colonies of Rome are burning.

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