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Russell Moore Christian Blog and Commentary

Russell Moore

Russell Moore's Blog

I sometimes post pictures on Instagram of books that I’m reading, usually just a stack on my table to let my followers know what I’m thinking about at the moment. The stack is almost always very heavily redacted. It’s not (necessarily) a list of recommendations, but a real-time rundown of what I’m consuming. Even so, I would never include in the stack Why I Don’t Believe in God or Beyond Good and Evil or Why Country Music Is Awful, for fear that some might think I agree with those ridiculous arguments. There was one book that I didn’t post on Instagram though for an entirely different reason; I didn’t want to be thought a hypocrite. I still don’t, but the case was so compelling that I’ve decided I don’t care.

The book, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Silicon Valley scientist and entrepreneur Jason Lanier, was, in some ways, dealing with predictable issues familiar to the genre: on addiction, attention spans, bullying, and so forth. What caught my attention though was the section dealing with something approaching a disturbing account of human nature, an account that rings true with what I’ve seen both in the digital and the real ecosystems.

We all know that social media platforms amplify the voices of “trolls,” those extraordinarily wounded psyches who seek out such venues to vent their inner demons with anger. Lanier’s argument, though, is not just that social media give a hearing to trolls but that these media are making us all, a little bit, into trolls. He uses a word that is less-than-evangelical-friendly, but that is synonymous with a boorish, mean-spirited, jerk, and says that social media actually can make us into people like this.

PERSON OR TRIBE?

To make his case, Lanier compares human nature to that of wolves, arguing that in every human personality there is the mode of the solitary and that of the pack. When our “switch” is set to “Pack,” he contends, we shift into emergency mode, to the protection of the real or imagined “tribe.” This mode is necessary, he contends; think of when individuality should essentially evaporate into the larger collective, say, in a time of military attack. This should be rare, though, and the “switch” should usually be kept in the “Solitary Wolf” mode.

“When the Solitary/Pack switch is set to Pack, we become obsessed with and controlled by a pecking order,” Lanier writes. “We pounce on those below us , lest we be demoted, and we do our best to flatter and snipe at those above us at the same time. Our peers flicker between ‘ally’ and ‘enemy’ so quickly that we perceive them as individuals. They become archetypes from a comic book. The only constant basis of friendship is shared antagonism toward other packs.”

This is why, he argues, nonsense is a more useful tool of building online “viral” content than is reason or imagination or truth. When “truth” is defined by what is useful or “memeable,” one’s embrace of that “truth” is a signal not that it is based in reality but instead that it makes one part of the digital “pack.” Those who fall repeatedly for what are self-evidently absurd concepts they latch on to on the internet are not necessarily stupid (though they may be). They are looking for a place to belong, and that’s the price.

Lanier argues that capitalism and democracy cannot survive while the “Pack” mode is permanently switched to “on.” He writes: “Tribal voting, personality cults, and authoritarianism are the politics of the Pack setting.” The solitary wolf is forced to care about the larger reality more than the perceptions of the tribe. That leads to the qualities of the scientist or the artist as opposed to what happens when social status and “intrigue” become more important, a situation that forces one to act more “like an operator, a politician, or a slave.”

INDIVIDUALS IN COMMUNITY

He’s right not only about the economic or democratic conditions around us, but also about a reality he doesn’t examine at all: that of the church. The church requires a balance between individuality and community. When individuality becomes disconnected from community, one refuses to submit to one another or to serve one another. But the opposite is also true. If I find my identity in the community, or in the community’s perception of me, I am no longer free to serve the community.

I can only do that if I bring to the community the gifts God has given to me, anchored in an identity that is found in Christ. That’s why the Spirit uses the analogy of the body and the organs of the body for life in the church—organically connected but distinguishable. Indeed, when the personal is absorbed into the raw rush to the collective, we end up with angry tribes within the church (“I am of Peter; I am of Apollos…” 1 Cor. 1:12). Those who do so are not selflessly serving the whole; they are instead seeking to selfishly find themselves, in a tribe they can war against another. This leads, the Apostle Paul tells us, to an animalistic biting and devouring of one another (Gal. 5:15).

Church splits and Twitter wars aren’t really all that different. Joining a cult and spending time wondering what people think about you online are different in degree, but maybe not that much in kind.

I’m not arguing that we all should delete our social media accounts. I am, though, wondering if you should spend some time asking whether your social media account is leading you places you can’t handle. Do you find yourself given over more to anger or to anxiety or to envy or to pack thinking? Then maybe it’s time to step back, or even to leave for a while.

After all, you weren’t created for a hive or a pack. You were created for a church. And, for that, you need more than a tribe. You need a soul. Your church needs that from you, too.

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/marchmeena29

This week marks the 1000th issue of Action Comics, and the 80th anniversary of the Superman. Quite a bit has happened in the eight decades since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the now iconic hero. Brian Michael Bendis, long of Marvel Comics is coming over to Superman’s publisher, DC, to launch a new era for the Man of Steel. Oh, and, due to fan demand, the classic red trunks are back. As Clark Kent hits eighty, we perhaps should ask why the myth of the last son of Krypton has persisted so long in popular culture.

I do not write this as a neutral observer, but as a fan of the character—and the larger DC universe—since before I was even able to read. The stories from Smallville and Metropolis (and Gotham and Central City and Paradise Island) populated the Fortress of Solitude that was my childhood imagination in ways that, looking back, I think pointed me onward to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien and beyond. But why did I, along with millions of others over the past eighty years, want to put that red blanket over my shoulders and pretend to fly?

Superman's Appeal 

Author Grant Morrison (himself a prolific writer of comic books and graphic novels) has argued that Superman persists because he represents hope and power; he is the pop-culture equivalent of a “sun god.” Some psychologists would say that Superman appeals to us because of his power. We long for the grandiosity inherent in the ability to fly, outpace bullets, see through walls, or, as on the cover of that first Action Comics, lift a car over our heads. Some would say that children especially identify with the phenomenon of the secret identity; “I might seem to be bumbling, bespectacled Clark Kent, but if you could just see me in my Kryptonian battle armor…”

The idea of Superman as the idealization of strength and power would make sense. His name, after all, comes from Friedrich Nietzsche and his idea of the Übermensch from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. If Nietzschean power were what we longed for though, there would be other characters, more powerful than Superman, to stand in for hope. The atomic symbol of the Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan would be far more appropriate than the S-looking logo of the House of El.

No, what we love about Superman is not his power so much as his vulnerability. In this, playwright David Mamet was right when he wrote in the 1980s that the real draw of Superman is not flight or X-ray vision, but Kryptonite. “Kryptonite is all that remains of his childhood home,” Mamet wrote. “It is the remnants of that destroyed childhood home, and the fear of those remnants, which rule Superman’s life.”

“Far from being invulnerable, Superman is the most vulnerable of beings, because his childhood home was destroyed,” Mamet argued. “He can never reintegrate himself by returning to that home—it is gone. It is gone and he is living among aliens to whom he cannot even reveal his rightful name.” The Superman mythos is then, he concludes, a fable not of strength but of a “cry for help.”

A Broken Hero

Mamet is partly right. An inexpressibly powerful alien force would not be as beloved, because such wouldn’t seem to ring true to our own lives. Kryptonite is the symbol of brokenness. More than the literal Kryptonite, though, is the metaphorical Kryptonite in the background. Superman wears the uniform of a lineage far away and lost forever. So in our world, he has learned to love those who welcomed him into the human family—the Kents. But even this further reveals brokenness. Superman may be the Man of Tomorrow, but he can be hurt; he can even be killed. And, yet his greatest weakness is that he can lose those he loves. We can identify with this. We don’t all come from Krypton, but we all have Kryptonite.

This brokenness, though, leads to purpose and mission. In the Geoff Johns era of the series (one of the best, in my opinion), Jonathan Kent tells his son, “Your greatest power isn’t being able to fly or see through walls. It’s knowing what the right thing to do is.” That’s consistently true of the character over the past eighty years. That’s one of the reasons the current incarnation of Superman is especially inspiring; he is a husband and a father, trying to do his best to balance family and work.

This sense of mission, and the ethical framework, undergirding it isn’t activated by a yellow sun, but by patient parenting. It didn’t come from Krypton, but from Kansas. Superman may carry out his adventures with the powers of Kal-El, but all the while he’s really Clark Kent. Those principles point him back to the joy and hurt of love that can die, but is as strong as death, stronger even.

Much has been made of the religious imagery in the Superman mythos—especially the Old Testament echoes of Moses in the basket. Some have suggested that Superman is a Christ figure, a concept implicit throughout the Superman Returns film and elsewhere. As a Christian, though, I think we identify with Superman not so much because he is godlike but because he is, underneath it all, so very human. We might be thrilled to see a superhero flying upward in the skies above us, but, really, we’re looking past him, for Someone else.

We’d all like to be saved from danger by a real or imagined Superman every once in a while. But super-men have come and gone. This character has persisted for almost a century. That’s not because we think he can save us, but because we know, deep in our hearts, that a Superman needs a savior too.

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/Choreograph

After the recent coalition bombing of multiple chemical weapons sites belonging to the Syrian regime, several people have asked me the question of what happens if such military interventions develop into a full-scale war in Syria: would such a war be just? I’ll say at the outset I don’t have a definitive answer to offer, but I do think we need to ask what principles would need to be considered if such an option ever comes to the table.

On the one hand, the question is not really a hypothetical. There is already war in Syria, a war that has been raging for some time. The question, though, is about the involvement of other countries, including our own, in that war.  The question is a good one, and ought to be considered long before any potential military action, not just during or after.

Just War Theory

Some Christians, of course, mostly in the Anabaptist traditions, would argue that no military action of any kind is ever warranted. Pacifism teaches that any violence of any kind is morally wrong. And while I am not a pacifist, I respect the view, and take it seriously. Most Christians, however, both today and in the broader history of the church, are not pacifists but hold to some version of “just war theory,” as classically articulated by Augustine. While not seeking to argue between pacifism and just war theory here, it is useful to examine the current situation in terms of just war theory to ask whether, on those terms, such a war would be justified.

Just war is not the opposite of pacifism. It is not militarism that justifies all military action, or justifies military action by reason of “might makes right.” Indeed, just war theory, at its best, does the opposite. While seeing war as sometimes being a regrettable necessity in the time-between-the-times of this fallen cosmic order, the theory holds that war brings with it tremendous moral consequence. Just war theory, then, seeks to bound in the justifications for violence.

One might compare just-war theory to the “exception clauses” view of divorce and remarriage. Some Christians hold that no divorce is ever warranted, for any cause. As with pacifism, I respect that view for the seriousness with which it takes the Sermon on the Mount, though I do not think that is what Jesus was teaching. Those who disagree with the no-exceptions view, though, would be wrong to take the opposite view, that marital bonds can be broken for any reason (which is what Jesus was teaching against). In just war theory, war should be a grave exception to the norm, which should be peace and order.

While there are several “planks” of just-war theory, let’s look at a couple that are relevant to the crisis in Syria. The first principle of a just war, that of a just cause, is clearly, in my view, met in this case. The Assad regime is lawless and murderous, guilty of war crimes against the people of Syria themselves. Assad has defied international law in a way that fully justifies action against his forces, such as the limited strikes we have seen so far. It is right that the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, are not yielding to the morally bankrupt vision that emerges from time to time in history, arguing that defenseless people should fend for themselves as they are being slaughtered.

What it Means to Prevail

What, though, if the international community were to move toward something more—toward full-scale war in Syria? This could result in a regional war along the lines of Afghanistan or Iraq or even into a World War, given Assad’s alliances with Russia and Iran. What principles would need to be considered if such an option ever comes to the table?

One of the first questions that would need to be asked is whether there is, to use the language of the classic Augustinian theory, a “probability of success.” The nations involved would need to know that there is a reasonable opportunity to prevail, which would mean, in this case, first of all, a definition of what it means to prevail. Regime change is certainly warranted in Syria, but regime change alone is not enough. The nations going to war would need to determine not only that the Assad regime is illegitimate (it is, in my view), but also what would replace that regime. Replacing one set of terrorists with another does not bring about justice or peace. We would need to know that any military action would not only be just in cause, and carried out with just limits, but also that such action would not make the situation worse.

That would entail also a clear communication, in the case of the United States, of what such war would mean, and why, morally and prudentially, it should be waged. Some wars are fought with no possibility of success because those waging them do not have the military capability to win. That’s not the case for the allied nations involved here. Sometimes, though, the issue is not ammunition but national will. Would the country be willing to sustain the cost, in blood and treasure, of a war in the Middle East? What would be the worst-case scenario, and would the country be willing to bear it? Those questions must be asked and answered.

Military action in Syria is a pressing one for us as citizens of earthly states, but Syria is even more pressing for us as citizens of the kingdom of God. As the church of Jesus Christ, part of our own earliest history is there. We have brothers and sisters in Christ in mortal jeopardy there. The refugees fleeing for their lives from Syria are our neighbors, created in the image of God. As the church, we have no military sword (Matt. 26:52). We may debate, and disagree with one another, about what, if any, military action the state should take in Syria, but we should be united as the church in the kind of warfare we have been called to: the spiritual warfare of prayer (Eph. 6:12).

As we debate, then, we should pray for wisdom and justice as we seek the Lord on behalf of those political and military leaders making decisions (1 Tim. 2:1-3), and pray for peace and order and justice and righteousness in Syria.

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/zabelin

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