Fear, And ‘Fear’
I just finished a long phone conversation with an old Christian friend whose family is in crisis. Obviously I won’t give details here, but it has to do with a sibling who has struggled for years with mental health, and who is now identifying as transgender. The friend called me after watching or listening to the startling interview my podcast partner Kale Zelden and I did with Helena Kerschner, the 23-year-old detransitioner, who described at length how she was sucked into the trans world. (If you don’t have time to listen to the interview, then read Helena’s astonishing account of her transition and detransition, and what the experience has taught her about why so many people of her generation are falsely embracing trans identity.)
“That interview rocked me hard,” he told me, and then revealed to me the struggles within his family to make sense of this. He doesn’t believe for one second that his sibling (who is married but estranged from her husband, who has his own issues) is actually transgender. Rather, she surrounded herself with friends who told her that the solution to all her anxieties was to embrace her “true” identity as a man.
We talked through this for over an hour. I had no answers for him, not really. Has any civilization ever faced this kind of thing? It’s hard to believe. But we can be sure that it is going to get much worse before it gets better. We talked about the spiritual aspects of all this, and how the churches are badly equipped to deal with it.
I bring this up in light of this comment by Skye Jethani, a standard-bearer of the “What, Me Worry?” Evangelicals:
What’s really fueling all of the criticism of winsome Christian voices like @timkellernyc & @DavidAFrench? Here’s my take on the ‘war on winsomeness’ from this week’s @HolyPostPodcast. https://t.co/ljybKdWVeG pic.twitter.com/zERYOYoHfi
— Skye Jethani (@SkyeJethani) May 20, 2022
This comes from Jethani’s Holy Post podcast. He thinks Christians like me are “terrified,” and traffick in fear, and that this is why we criticize the “winsome” approach of people like Tim Keller and David French. What we really need to realize, he said, is that Jesus is in charge — as if faith somehow magically makes threats disappear.
I am reminded of the old joke about the man who sits on the roof of his house in a flood, praying for God to save him. Rescuers show up in a boat and urge him to get in, but he says no, I’m fine, God is going to save me. The water keeps rising higher, and he intensifies his prayers. Another rescue boat shows up, but he turns them away too, saying that God is in charge, and is going to save him. Finally the waters overtake the man’s house, and he drowns. When he gets to heaven, he asks God, “I had faith in you! Why didn’t you save me?” And God answers: “Fool, I sent two sets of people to rescue you, but you wouldn’t listen to them.”
And I think about the Slovak Catholic bishops of the 1940s, who told Father Tomislav Kolakovic that he should stop his mission of preparing Slovak Catholics for Communist persecution, because that kind of thing won’t happen here, not to us. Thank God the priest did not listen to the bishops, and continued building his network. When the Iron Curtain fell over his country, the Slovaks who took Father Kolakovic seriously were ready. They couldn’t stop the persecution, but they were prepared to live with it, and remain faithful under great duress.
Not all fear is of the same kind. There is a fear that is irrational, and often found with a fear that paralyzes. But there is also a fear that is reasonable, and that should encourage people to act to the best of their abilities to reduce the threat that provokes the fear reaction. The first kind of fear is a curse, but the second kind of fear is a gift, if received rightly.
What I’m trying to get my readers to do, in both The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies, is to embrace the second kind of fear. The Jethanis of the world want people to believe that all fear is of the first kind. I believe they are not selling courage, but a form of anesthesia. And they are going to get a lot of Christians in trouble.
Before we go further, let me say that I am only speaking for myself, and that I’m not talking about Tim Keller or David French. I know very little about Keller, except by his sterling reputation; I am in no position to criticize him. David French is a friend, and though we disagree on a lot, I think he’s correct when he focuses on certain actors on the Right, religious and political, who stoke people’s fears — rational and irrational — for worldly advantage. I do have a much darker view of the present situation, and the situation developing, than David does. But in neither case do I believe either Keller or French says what they do out of bad motive. I think they are being faithful to what they believe to be the truth. I simply think that the “winsome” approach associated with Keller and French is in general no longer a rational response to the times in which Christians find themselves.
The Protestant cultural critic Aaron Renn really does speak prophetically about this stuff. If you’re not following him, you really should be. In his latest Substack essay, he defends his “Three Worlds of Evangelicalism” thesis, which obviously has relevance to all theologically conservative Christians, not just Evangelicals. Excerpts:
To refresh, my framework posits that during the period of secularization post-1965, America has passed through three distinct phases or worlds in terms of how secular culture views Christianity.
- Positive World (Pre-1994). Christianity was viewed positively by society and Christian morality was still normative. To be seen as a religious person and one who exemplifies traditional Christian norms was a social positive. Christianity was a status enhancer. In some cases, failure to embrace Christian norms hurt you.
- Neutral World (1994-2014). Christianity is seen as a socially neutral attribute. It no longer had dominant status in society, but to be seen as a religious person was not a knock either. It was more like a personal affectation or hobby. Christian moral norms retained residual force.
- Negative World (2014-). In this world, being a Christian is now a social negative, especially in high status positions. Christianity in many ways is seen as undermining the social good. Christian morality is expressly repudiated.
Like all frameworks of this type – such as the division of history into ancient, medieval, and modern – my three worlds model is a simplification of very complex phenomena, and designed primarily for utilitarian purposes. Unlike with theological or scientific models, which are claims to objective truth, frameworks like these are tools to help us make sense of and navigate the world. There may be many frameworks to explain the same phenomenon, each of which is useful to some people but not others, or each of which illuminates different dimensions of the situation. I always encourage people to try out different frameworks or lenses on a problem to look at it from multiple angles. Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is a related but different lens, for example.
Renn obliterates David French’s claim that there was never a time in the contemporary US when it was acceptable to hold morally conservative beliefs. Renn provides data — many of which you can also find in Live Not By Lies — showing that there really has been a sea change in American moral views, in a very short period of time. Do you remember that as recently as 2008, California voters — California! — voted down same-sex marriage in a referendum. You can believe that the changes have been good, or mostly good, but what you cannot deny is that there have been huge changes in American life on a number of moral issues — and all of this has made it much more difficult for those who believe in traditional Christianity. Renn:
The average person in America can sense that something has changed profoundly in the era since Obama won his second term. They might not be sure what it is, how to describe it, or what to do about it, but they know it’s there. Acting like it’s the same old negative world it ever was – or even, as French does, pointing out ways things have improved – is just not going to connect with people. It’s like continuing to describe our world in terms of concepts like relativism. It doesn’t speak to the mood of the culture or what the man on the street is sensing and or experiencing in his daily life.
I spoke this week to a friend who is involved in Christian education, and he has a pretty negative view of the future of it. Why? Because, he said, he sees so many Christian schools that declare themselves to be conservative preoccupying themselves with maintaining status in Negative World (he didn’t use this term, but that’s what he was talking about). He gave me specific examples. I believe him. Back in 2015, I was present at a meeting of conservative Evangelicals at which a speaker, an academic, predicted that things would get much worse for those who believe in the gender binary, and what Scripture teaches about sex and sexuality.
A woman present who held a high-status job in a major American city was clearly frustrated by all this. She said something like, “When can we get over all this concern about homosexuality and transgenderism, and get back to preaching the Gospel?”
I don’t know this woman, and can’t discern what was in her heart. But she is the sort of person Skye Jethani speaks to, and for. She apparently held the wholly untenable belief that to be a Christian is what you affirm in your heart, and has nothing to do with what you do with her body. Maybe she would have denied that she believed that, but that’s exactly the implication of her remark. The truth is that given the world she was in — secular media — and the position she held, she was made extremely uncomfortable by the claim that to be faithful to Christ, you could not affirm homosexuality or transgenderism.
Aaron Renn does not claim, nor do I, that there was ever any sort of Golden Age of Christianity in America. Try being a believer who preached the Gospel truth about race in the 1950s South, and see how much the Positive World did for you. Nevertheless, it is generally true that Christianity back then was seen as something positive for society. This is why the black pastors of the Civil Rights Movement were so effective in calling out the hypocrisy of white Christians who professed one thing, but live another way. If Christianity weren’t seen as a positive thing, that line of critique and protest would not have been effective. Today, Scripturally normative Christianity very much is not seen as positive — not even when that Christianity is held by people of color. In the European Parliament this week, members voted down a discussion about Deborah Yabuku, a Nigerian Christian murdered by Muslims on charges that she blasphemed against the Prophet Muhammad on a WhatsApp chat:
This is the moment when MEPs voted NOT to even debate the issue of Christian persecution and the tragic murder of Deborah, killed for “blaspheming” on a WhatsApp chat. “Shame!” Shout some MEPs in response: pic.twitter.com/WWgQLlkE6g
— ADF International (@ADFIntl) May 20, 2022
When you talk to people who do work with the persecuted church around the world, you’ll hear them all say that Western politicians and civil society leaders don’t want to know about this stuff, or to act on it. They regard Christians as somehow deserving what they get. Inside every martyred Nigerian Christian is a little Jerry Falwell Jr., they seem to believe.
As Renn says, there must have been a period of Neutral World in the transition. He dates it to 1994, but I can say that I lived it in my high school between 1983-85. There were gay people there who were either out, or made little effort to hide their homosexuality. Everybody knew who they were — and nobody cared. There were also engaged Christians, who were a small minority. Their status was definitely not enhanced by being identified as believers, but it didn’t suffer either. They were respected. Most of us would have said we were Christian if asked, but didn’t go to church and were pretty, well, neutral about the whole thing. I didn’t really consider myself a Christian back then, and actually was quite liberal overall. But I didn’t think badly either of Christians or gay folks. I had friends in both camps. Back then, there was nothing like the polarization of today.
Almost every day I hear from someone who tells me that they used to think I was an alarmist about this stuff, until the shadow of what Renn calls Negative World fell over their lives. I think Christians and other religious and moral traditionalists, and dissenters of all kinds from the postliberal successor ideology of Wokeness, ought to fear this stuff, in the same way they ought to fear crime, and take sensible precautions against it. Believing in Jesus Christ is not going to keep bad things from happening to you. Your faith may help you endure those bad things with calm courage, because you know that in the end, “the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David has triumphed” (Rev. 5:5). When you read the testimonies of Christians jailed by Communist regimes, you don’t see any of this middle-class American “don’t worry, be happy” copium. You see people who knew exactly how evil their opponents were, and who were suffering because of it. But they were not afraid to die for Christ, because they knew that the God-man in whom they placed their faith had already defeated death. Even if they were asked to give their lives in testimony for Him, they were prepared to do it.
Dr. Silvester Krcmery, one of Father Kolakovic’s disciples, and a pillar of the underground Catholic Church in Communist Slovakia, wrote that his spiritual father had taught them all to expect persecution one day, but to meet it without fair, trusting that everything they suffered for Christ’s sake had meaning, and would be rewarded ultimately. Father Kolakovic’s command to refuse fear was certainly not telling them to relax, because nothing bad would happen to them. Not at all! He was telling his followers that persecution is coming, and you should prepare for it now — and when it arrives, meet it with courage and confidence. This is why, in his 1954 trial, the young physician Krcmery told the Communist court:
God gave me everything I have and now that I face persecution because of Him, and am called on to profess my faith in Him, should I now pretend I don’t believe? Should I hide my faith? Should I deny Him?
That is true courage! Only a fearless man could have spoken that way. Dr. Krcmery spent a decade in prison, under torture, for his faith. In his 1996 memoir, this is what the former prisoner of conscience had to say to the world:
We are so often naive in our thinking. We live, contented and safe, with the idea that in a civilized country, in the mostly cultured and democratic environment of our times, such a coercive regime is impossible. We forget that in unstable countries, a certain political structure can lead to indoctrination and terror, where individual elements and stages of brainwashing are already implemented. This, at first, is quite inconspicuous. However, often in a very short time, it can develop into a full undemocratic totalitarian system.
We are, I believe, living through the first days of that now. If you are the kind of person who recognizes it, but is paralyzed by fear of the future, then you desperately need to conquer that fear, and rather allow it to drive you to take prudent measures now to prepare, spiritually and otherwise, for what is to come. But by no means should you achieve peace of mind by denying the reality of what’s happening around you! That’s what the Catholic bishops of 1940s Slovakia did, and they failed to prepare their people for the trials to come. Their fear was the wrong kind, and it cost them and those under their authority greatly.
As Dr. Krcmery and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn both warned, what happened in their countries could happen any place on earth. We have to hope and pray that it won’t happen here, but we cannot sit on our roof and pray for God to save us, while refusing to step in the rescue boat, so to speak. If you listen to Skye Jethani and his faction of Copium Christians, you will be buying inner peace at too high a price. My friend — the guy who called me today, whose younger sister is on the verge of mutilating her body in her quest to become male — comes from a normal middle-class suburban conservative Evangelical family. There is nowhere to hide.
You’d have to be crazy to look around our country today and not be afraid of what’s happening, and what it stands to do to you and your loved ones. Father Kolakovic was a preacher of healthy fear — but also of hope. Hope does not make bad things go away, but it gives us the wherewithal to confront them with courage. Denying that threats exist, and calling those who point to them bad people, is not faith, but rather a kind of cowardice.