Interpreting the Times: An interview with Brett McCracken
Your writing tends to focus on the kind of territory we often explore at Think: the interface between theology and culture. You live in Southern California, but I know you are familiar with the UK too - what cultural issues do you see coming down the track over the next 5-10 years that we need to be theologically prepared for?
Obviously the growing confusion about gender and sex is a big one that is already here, but it will likely even become more of a challenge in the coming years, especially within the church as more and more younger believers are growing up with presuppositions about gender and sex that are simply the air they breathe in today’s world, but are decidedly unChristian.
Technology is the other big one that comes to mind. The problems it will pose are multifaceted. One challenge is the disembodying trajectory of technology, which exacerbates existing Gnostic tendencies (a cerebral rather than embodied faith) and subtly deemphasizes the crucial physicality of the church, the “body of Christ” in the material and not just theoretical sense. In our digitally mediated world, churches must find ways to encourage physical gatherings, the practice of the Lord’s Supper, meals together in neighborhoods, bodily movement in worship, shaking hands and hugging each other, etc. Anything to re-sensitize people to the fleshly reality of the church in the world.
A big one that we are already seeing is how the Internet is creating a crisis of epistemology. “Post-truth” was Merriam Webster’s word of the year last year, and “fake news” and “alternative facts” have become part of our discourse of late. In the age of Google, information is everywhere but wisdom is nowhere. How do we know what is true or believable amidst the digital avalanche of information? For churches, an increased skepticism toward truth/authority will certainly be a challenge.
There are other trends in technology we must prepare for: The “status anxiety” of our social media age that leads to narcissism, depression and addiction to “likes”; the ethical and existential questions posed by artificial intelligence; the compartmentalizing trajectory of technology that leads to unintegrated, fragmentary lives; the crisis of work in the post-industrial and automated age; the way online living erodes local community and inflates national and international politics to the extent that they become sources of ultimate meaning and identity.
Another trend to keep an eye on is the way “authenticity” continues to become an ultimate value for 21st century people. While there are some good aspects to it, “authenticity” as it is increasingly understood can become a privileging of brokenness and a “this is just who I am” essentialism and immutability. This is becoming a problem even in the church, where many Christians are quite simply more compelled by sin (though we call it “brokenness”) than we are with holiness, and that is a significant problem the church must address.
SoCal is famous for innovation, and infamous for the incubation of crazy ideas! What opportunities and challenges does this present in making disciples of Christ?
On the plus side, I think the creative energy of Southern California makes it an exciting place to live, full of an ethos of discovery and innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit. From a discipleship perspective it often means there is an optimism and passion in people that can lead them to getting fired up and excited about Jesus, especially if they’ve discovered him or discovered the gospel as something “new” or paradigm-altering in their lives.
But there are challenges too. The pervasive spirit of “new” and “future” often means there is a restlessness and low tolerance for slow growth, as well as a low appreciation for the past and tradition. Newness can become an idol, such that even those who do follow Jesus can become quickly bored, restless and resistant to sticking with one community for a long period of time. You see this everywhere among Christians in SoCal. They often get really excited about a new church, maybe stay there for a year or so, but then the novelty wears off or some “better fit” option comes along, and they move on. The ethos of innovation within churches can also have a downside, when churches are tempted to overstress relevance and the importance of current trends, focusing much of their energy on reinventing the wheel constantly so as to stay ahead of the curve. But this, as I argued in my book Hipster Christianity, simply plays into the worst tendencies of consumerism and chains the gospel to trendiness in a way that misses its transcendent power.
Your writing is potentially challenging for both liberals and conservatives - liberals because of your evangelical convictions, conservatives because of your positive engagement with ‘culture’. Which group do you find it most challenging to engage with, and which tends to give you the hardest time?
I’ve received criticism from both sides, but I think the liberal criticisms tend to be louder these days. In a former era my cultural engagement as an evangelical Christian might have been more countercultural, but these days I think the fact that I’m a Millennial who STILL BELIEVES (shocking!) even in the unpopular doctrines of Christianity (e.g. Christ’s exclusivity, sexual ethics, etc.) is more unsettling to liberals, whose narrative depends on the assumption that Millennial Christians are progressive and will finally move the church beyond its stodgy beliefs. And I also think some liberals don’t like the fact that I’m conversant in popular culture (as well as critical theory, cultural studies, the Frankfurt School, intersectionality, etc.) while also being theologically conservative, pro-life, pro-marriage, and deeply passionate about church.
But more often I find that there are many others like me in the church … people who don’t fit perfectly in these tidy categories; people who are interested in intellectual and cultural conversations but also committed to Christian orthodoxy. My hope for my generation of Christian Millennials is that we won’t follow the typical “pendulum” trajectory but rather be compelled by the nuances and complexity of maintaining faithfulness even while we winsomely engage the questions and issues of our secular age.
I’ve seen you reference your introversion several times. What do you think this personality trait contributes to Christian community that extroversion doesn’t? And how do you handle your introversion in a culture (both a church culture, and the wider culture) that generally seems to value extroversion over introversion?
Like any mix of personality differences, I think introverts and extroverts in the church can help one another. An introvert can help an extrovert learn to value contemplation and stillness. Introverts tend to also be more long-burn processors, needing to sit with ideas longer before weighing in. This can bring important balance to a team when it comes to decision making. If a church leadership team is made up entirely of extroverts, meetings and decision making can be chaotic and at times rash. Introverts slow things down and can often provide thinking and angles to discussions that aren’t there otherwise. Pastorally, I think introverts can minister to other introverts in the church (and extroverts!) in ways extrovert pastors can’t as effectively. Introverts know what other introverts need, and they also know where they need to be pushed and stretched outside of comfort. Likewise, an introvert pastor can help an extrovert grow in areas that are less normal or comfortable for them, such as silent prayer, reading, and other more solitary disciplines. I recommend Adam McHugh’s excellent book Introverts in the Church for a fuller exploration of these questions!
This September you have a new book being published by Crossway. Could you tell us something about it?
The book is called Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community. It’s essentially a call for a post-consumer approach to church, where we embrace, rather than avoid, the uncomfortable aspects of Christianity and the necessity of committing to a local church. I suggest in the book that when the church is uncomfortable and countercultural, she is strong. Exactly what shape this “countercultural” posture should take is a current topic of much debate, but my take is that it must be first and foremost grounded in local church communities, however awkward and uncool and seemingly mundane it may be.
In the book I explore various aspects of Christian faith and church life that are challenging in the 21st century. The book starts with a detailed description of my “dream church” but then proceeds to argue that this is the opposite approach we should take. There is no perfect church. We are better off, and the church is better off, if we embrace and commit to a faithful church even if it doesn’t “fit us” perfectly. As Bonhoeffer once said, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community.”
My sense is that if the church is going to thrive in the 21st century, she needs to be honest and upfront about the cost of discipleship, positioning herself as a radically different, uncomfortably Christ-centered community and not simply another “perfect fit” product in a consumerist world. To the extent that the church is the latter, she is just another extension of our perfectly curated iPhone lives. To the extent that she is the former, she will transform lives and transform the world.
What’s the deal with Terrence Malick?
Ha! You’ve noticed my obsession. Well, Terrence Malick is my favorite filmmaker and someone who, as an artist of Christian faith, has inspired me in my career as a writer looking for connections between theology and culture, the Bible and beauty. When I saw The Thin Red Line (Malick’s third film) as a 16-year-old I had a bit of an epiphany in terms of seeing connections between faith and art where I had formerly seen them as mostly at odds. So Malick has been deeply personal to me as a muse of sorts for my own passions as a writer and thinker. But beyond that, I just think Malick is a very singular and important filmmaker in today’s world. His training in philosophy, his knowledge of theology and literature and history, and his brilliant craft make him one of the most observant cinematic chroniclers of our age. He’s entered a prolific period now in his older age (since 2011’s The Tree of Life) and his recent films have a decidedly “Old Testament Wisdom Literature” feel to them. This is radical and often not well-received by the secular press, but in applying biblical wisdom and hope to the sexual, spiritual and consumerist confusion of our secular age, Malick is a crucial filmmaker who should be noted and celebrated by every Christian.