Serene Confidence - John Wilson and Matthew Lee Anderson
Serene Confidence. Matthew Lee Anderson interviews the legacy editor of Books & Culture, John Wilson.
I can, in the next hour.
Let’s go on.
Yeah. [John and Matthew chattering]
So John, you and I have talked before about the term Millennial. Millennial Christians is a category which people like me who write publicly love to use. In fact, everyone seems to love to use it. It sells a lot of books these days, to write to Millennial Christians, to talk about what they think, how they view the world, et cetera, et cetera. You’re not such a fan, I gather [laughs] of the category. [John laughing]. Is that right, and why? I’m curious to hear, in full, your worries, your objections, your thoughts about what’s going on, when we’re using Millennial Christian.
It’s not that I have a special grievance on Millennials. Millennials, in generational analysis on a larger scale, not just, for instance, with regard to Boomers.
Right, or Gen X, or–
Yeah, any of those, any of those, that they have a certain limited utility as long as you realize that they are a fiction.
In other words, there’s no such thing as a Millennial [laughing].
laughs: You can’t walk down the street and say, “Oh, look, there’s a Millennial.”
But my tattoo might give me away as being one.
It’s a heuristic device, and if you use it in a very limited way, it can be useful, but unfortunately, most of the time, when people use the term, they actually act as if it’s talking about something like, there’s a, remember the San Francisco 49ers, or there, you know.
That it’s something more than a heuristic, that they’ve actually identified a member of a class, as it were.
Well, and all kinds of other assumptions follow, follow from that. And one of the things about people who use this kind of analysis is that it’s a little bit like arguing with an old-style Freudian, you know. [Matthew laughing] They can’t be refuted because if you point out all kinds of exceptions.
You point out ways that there are all kinds of things happening that don’t fit with that. They’ll say something like, “Well, we’re talking in terms of broad–
Movements, and yeah, yeah. And so honestly, I think that the vast majority of the time the term is deployed now, it is misleading. But there are times when it can be used very usefully.
So it sounds like your underlying worry, your real concern, is that there’s a kind of intellectual temperament, maybe a vice, to use that, that is, that stands beneath it to use? Would you go that far to say that we’re using it uncritically, unreflectively? That it’s getting in the way of real, substantive analysis of the world, is it, is it–
Oh, absolutely, I have no, yeah that’s, you’re not putting words in my mouth. [Matthew laughing] No, I completely agree with that. And I see it, I know you and I, [Matthew laughing] most of our interaction has either been by email or by Twitter. And in fact, this is the first time we’ve actually had a chance to be in the same place–
Sit down, right.
at the same time, which I’m very thankful for. But I see it all the time on Twitter. I see people citing articles in which they say, “Millennials want this,” you know. And it suggests that there is a certain discreet group–
of people who were born between certain years that it’s meaningful to say, as a group, they want this.
And it also lends itself to all kinds of sloppy thinking that is based on those generalizations, so yes.
So as a heuristic, I mean, and as a mentality, do you think that it’s motivated or exacerbated by, I mean, what do you think is the underlying cause of that? Why do you think we are so quick or so eager–
Total depravity, possibly? [Matthew laughing] [John laughing]
Well, I mean if you wanna run to total depravity as an explanation for all of our vices, sure, but do you think that this kind of intellectual vice is particular to our environment, our social environment? Is there a reason why we like these kinds of rough and ready heuristic devices, generational analysis, today?
One reason would have to do with the prestige of a certain kind of pseudoscience.
Which you see epitomized with the Barna Group. Some time ago, I reviewed one of Barna’s books in which he was talking about church services. And he was giving, you know, “Our studies have shown that the optimum time “for a sermon is, you know, like 12 minutes,” or something like that. [Matthew laughing] People actually go–
Yeah, and he had gone on with some other things like that. But then, you could tell that there was a point as he was writing the book when he said, “Uh oh, someone’s gonna say “you’re leaving out the Holy Spirit. “I’ve gotta figure out a way “to get the Holy Spirit in there.”
And so he says, “This does not mean, however, “that everything is planned down to the second. “And in fact, in really effective churches, “people aren’t exactly sure “when the service is gonna end.” You know, they don’t know for sure when it’s gonna end. And so I wrote a piece about that book in which I played on the similarity between the name P.T. Barnum and George Barna,
And I said that everyone, like you, like me, who’s gone to church all their life, knows that if there’s one thing you can generalize about churches of all different kinds. You know, there are very different kinds of churches.
They have different worship styles, they have. It is that everybody involved knows, 99 times out of 100, when the service is gonna end.
It’s just the way it is. And I said, “If Barna has evidence to the contrary”–
“that these more effective churches depart from that rule, “you know, let him show it.” Well, of course, no evidence ever appeared. And so despite this kind of pseudoscience, Barna is an enormously influential figure in the world of American evangelicalism. He’s quoted all the time.
And I would say that part of the reason that the notion of Millennials and related generational terms has gotten so much–
is that pseudoscientific appeal.
So if it’s an intellectual vice to lean too heavily on, to unreflectively lean on these kinds of heuristics for our analysis of the world, I’m curious what you would say about the corresponding virtue. How do you think we ought, as Christians, counteract, oppose, lean against that kind of analysis, other than by just not deploying it ourselves. Are there particular critical virtues that you think we’re lacking as those who think about the world that we really need to inculcate within ourselves?
Absolutely, I think an attentiveness to particularity. I love the phrase the resistance of the real.
Okay, the resistance of the real?
John: The resistance of the real–
is an evocative phrase that I wanna hear unpacked.
Well, when we’re talking about issues of looking at the current generation.
Which is what all this talk. What are they doing, what do they want? Well, we wanna be attentive to the messy particulars of that. We don’t wanna jump prematurely to a narrative that then allows us to spin off an endless series of books and seminars and so on about, you know, this is what Millennials want. And just as that loses steam, we come up with some other shtick that we then just shift to seamlessly.
Just about the time it becomes clear that our generalizations about Millennials were at least three quarters baloney, you know. [Matthew laughing] But meanwhile, we’re on to something new, and so that, yes, there are things that we can do, and a lot of them are very simple.
Again, a sense of intellectual modesty, a sense of absurdity, a recognition that there’s a lot that we don’t understand and probably never will understand, which shouldn’t in any way, again, become an excuse for giving up our God-given quest to know, to understand, to learn. But it has to be held in tension with that.
Yeah. [introspective techno music]
I don’t think that I’ve ever heard anyone describe a sense of absurdity as an intellectual virtue, though I can see, when you say it, how it might be. It’s not quite a handbrake term, but it might be close. When you talk about a sense of the absurd, it seems like a short step from there toward actually calling certain positions absurd, to naming them as absurd.
And that’s the kind of rhetorical move that is not necessarily in vogue in certain circles and maybe over-deployed in other circles. Do you think that’s a worry about having a sense of the absurd, that we would too readily name, and absurd being a kind of, it functions within your, the way that you said it as a kind of positive sense, in one sense. But to name something as absurd has a kind of–
That’s interesting, I see what you’re saying. In my own experience, those two are not connected. I’ll give you another example. There are tons and tons of books about the problem of evil, right? I have tried to persuade some of my friends who were interested in that kind of thing to write about the problem of good.
There’s something completely intellectually suspect about the gross disproportion of attention, not to trivialize at all–
the human concerns of someone who has had, in their life, an experience, a loss that forces them to have that rubbed in their face. I’m not trivializing that at all. I’m talking about the intellectual attention to–
the vast libraries on the problem of evil, the tiny shelf of things on the problem of good.
So that leads me to another observation which is, I think a lot of times, when people talk about the problem of evil, what they’re really talking about is what you could call the problem of the absurd, that something just doesn’t make sense, you know, it just doesn’t make sense. There was a story a few years ago, I remember, we lived near Chicago. And there was a story of a woman who was walking along the street, and a window detached, the weather had been very cold, and a window detached, came down, and decapitated her, you know.
And there’s something different about an instance like that and the kind of instances that people often cite when they talk about the problem of evil and they talk about genocide.
Genocide is a favorite, you know, which, genocide is terrible.
But at least in a genocide, you can talk about, you can talk about evil perpetrators.
And you can probe those kinds of questions whereas there’s something about an instance like the woman walking along and being decapitated by the falling window that simply is completely resistant to any analysis like that. It seems to mock–
any such analysis. And to me, what should come out of that is a sense of humility, of the limits on what we can understand. And I often think that as Christians, one of our biggest weaknesses is that we don’t seem to take seriously the very core of our belief, which is the existence and nature of God, and that if this being, and I have lots of friends who think that this is just a nutty idea. That, I mean, they think it’s a mixture of wish fulfillment–
Sort of childish, and, you know, they know that intelligent people believe it.
And they kind of rub their heads and say [Matthew laughing] I don’t know how they believe it, but they’re not all mean and evil,
and it’s kind of a quirk they have. I know lots of people think that. And in a way, I can understand why they think it because it is, it’s an astonishing, it’s an astonishing belief. But let’s say that it’s true. If we really believe that it’s true, if we really believe in the God that we say we believe in, and if we really believe that he revealed himself in these words that were passed down through the children of Israel and in the Gospels.
And if we really believe that, we’re constantly brought up against this reality that is so much larger than we can grasp, than we’re ever going to grasp. And so for me, a sense of absurdity should not at all lead you to a kind of smug superiority over others so that you can, I don’t think we should
Yeah. hesitate to, if we find something ridiculous and wrong, as I find, for instance, much of the work of George Barna. And I may be wrong, all right? But I don’t think I should go around walking on eggshells. I think I should express that and then move on to something else. But I don’t, I don’t think we should at all indulge in a kind of smug dismissal, and so for me, the sense of absurdity doesn’t at all reinforce the kind of smugness that–
I think you were warning us rightly against where we say, “Ah well, that’s just, that’s just”–
Yeah, yeah. And on the other hand, [introspective techno music] we very much need, partly for our own sanity when we hear and read things that just seem so clearly wrong to us, we need people to say they’re wrong [laughs], you know. It’s part of keeping us sane. And so holding that intention is not something that we ever learn how to do once and for all and, you know, it’s easy for the rest of our lives. It’s something that we have to negotiate every day, but.
Yeah, let me ask about that tension because I think there’s a lot there. I mean, walking between smug dismissals on the one hand and sort of bold denunciations of those things that we think are wrong.
That’s a delicate wire to walk on–
with pretty severe falls below, and I wonder, how have you managed to do that? I’m curious, and I also wonder what you make of the rhetoric of civility around that, because it seems like within–
That’s a very good question.
Within our public discourse, we, I mean, we really, it seems like we really love and value civility, and we want to preserve a kind of niceness to our public square such that, and this seems particularly true within the church, such that even strong denunciations of fellow believers have to be preceded by many paragraphs about how much we respect them, how we love them, and so on and so forth.
And it feels like there’s a kind of code that requires a certain kind of niceness before we can come out and say, “But I just think you’re wrong “in the following three ways.” How do we manage that tension? And what do you make of civility?
Yeah, I think that’s a wonderful, I think that’s a wonderful set of questions. As far as how I have done it, that would be for others to say, [Matthew laughing] and I’m sure some of ’em would say, “Not very well.” So for instance, I can imagine some people hearing me talk about Millennials and saying, “Oh, well, that’s exactly what he’s doing. “He’s sounding so smug, he’s sounding so superior.” Uh uh, you know.
And we’re just trying to help people, and of course, this is the old evangelical crutch. It’s something that, ever since I’ve been, like, 10 years old, I’ve heard people say this. They say things that I honestly think are terribly muddled, and if you try to point out how they’re muddled, then they say, “But we’re helping people. “We’re [laughing], we’re helping people.” And so I would say when someone says, this is something that I’ve heard literally hundreds of times. “Millennials value authenticity,” you know? [Matthew laughing]
Well, I mean, that is so muddled, you don’t even know where to start because, in the first place, we all know that being sinners, being weak humans, we constantly are tempted by what’s false for a variety of reasons. And so there’s never been a generation of humans that distinctively values authenticity more than anything else. And yet at the same time, because we’re created in God’s image, all humans have a certain yearning for authenticity, you know?
And so the idea that it’s meaningful, and probably buried somewhere in that assumption are some actual, valuable, down-to-earth, practical observations if you could just pull them out and make them much narrower,
and practical, there’s probably some legitimate observations in there. But this kind of sweeping statement, you know, Millennials are people who value authenticity, so I would say if it comes to things like that that you happen to be the kind of person that God has created to care about such things and try to sort them out, you should do that. But you shouldn’t puff yourself up with a sense that you’re the corrector of all wrongs [Matthew laughing] and spend all your time running around thinking that you’re sort of, capital letters, the great corrector.
You know, you have to, and you have to, you have to listen. You have to be a good listener. You have to learn from others. If you’re not learning from people all the time, there’s something wrong. If you feel like it’s always coming from you and you’re not learning from others and being corrected by others, that’s a real red flag.
But the codes around correction that we have are pretty stringent codes around what kind of correction we’re going to offer
Well, they’re very and accept.
they’re very, they’re very inconsistent. So there are certain things at any given moment, like in our cultural moment, there are certain taboos, let’s say, that if you violate those, it’s perfectly all right to be very harsh in correcting.
You know. And we could all fill those in.
You know. Then, in fact, you run the risk of being criticized for not being fierce enough in your, in your correction because by not being
absolutely scathing and coming out and saying, “I denounce this, I denounce this,” someone’s gonna say, well, “Why hasn’t Matt denounced this yet?”
Where’s your courage at? [laughs]
laughing: You know, where’s the outrage, you know? On the other hand, if it’s not one of those issues where, at our particular cultural moment, and of course, every moment has a different set of those, if it’s not one of those issues and you issue this, what seems to you to be justifiable correction, you run the risk of being called abrasive, uncivil. And you know, there’s no rules. There’s no rules for any of that.
There’s no, you can’t make a infallible list of guidelines. I think one thing you can do is look at people who model different virtues and recognize that, again, God created us in such a way that there are people who seem to be called more to that kind of thing than others. And there are people who are very valuable because they do that. But that doesn’t mean they have carte blanche. That doesn’t mean that they’re never wrong, either, and they need people to correct them.
So it’s very messy [laughs]. [introspective techno music]
Is civility the kind of thing that Christians should be seeking in their discourse on Facebook, on Twitter, on the various places that Christians talk with others?
Absolutely, but it should be a very robust civility. Yes, I mean, I think civility, I think civility is a great virtue. And I feel at times that I, I feel at times that I have, I have failed in observing it as much as I should, and on the other hand, I think that it can be used, it can be invoked in an unctuous way. It can be invoked in a false way.
And so we definitely need civility, but it needs to be a robust civility. We often, it turns out in practice that civility is a code word for being mad about the things that I think you should be mad about and not about some other things that I don’t particularly care about. And when it’s used in that way, it’s not helpful. [introspective techno music]
So when you think about the rhetoric and the discourse that you hear most often, you are an editor–
of one of America’s best magazines.
Oh, well thank you.
And it certainly is a unique magazine within the Christian world. It has a kind of discourse, internal, within it, that seems to be doing something slightly different than most of the things the Christian world has done, at least the evangelical world has done, over the past 30, 40 years. As you think about the kind of discourse that you see more broadly, what would be your hopes for how Christians speak about ourselves and speak to the world in the next 30, 40 years?
Well, I would say that one thing that should underlie everything that we say is a serene confidence, which is very different from, is very different from smugness. And I think it’s something that can be perceived, just like a scent, you know, so.
Can I ask why you added serene to that because we hear a lot about confidence, and I’ve written about confidence,
but serenity is not a word that generally gets attached to it.
Well, a lot of, a lot of contemporary evangelical discourse seems to be driven by an unexpressed fear that, for instance, talk about generational analysis, if we don’t do X, the next generation will have only four percent Christians.
You know that kind of thing. You’ve written about that very phenomenon–
yourself. It seems to me that while it’s hard for us often to admit how much we can’t grasp and we can’t understand, and Wendy and I, my wife and I, frequently say to each other, “Why did this happen?” I won’t give instances,
but just in the last week, we’ve had reason to say, “Why did this happen?” We don’t understand. We probably never will. That’s hard, but how wonderful to have a serene confidence that even though we don’t understand that and even though there’s much happening that gives cause for sorrow and confusion, ultimately, all shall be well. And so for me, the serenity is absolutely vital, that should come out. It’s not something like with, the last thing we want is a campaign [Matthew laughing] where we write books, you know, and we give seminars, you know. How to have serene confidence [laughing].
You’re not gonna start the John Wilson Road Show where you–
laughing: No, I mean, that’s the last–
Matthew: I’d go to that.
That’s the last thing that we want, but it should be something that, that animates all that we do. And I think with your children, I think that’s one of the most important things as a parent is communicating that. It’s not just what you say. And say people say, “Well, your actions “speak louder than your words.” And of course, they set up a false dichotomy–
And you know, all that matters, but animating what you say and what you do should be this, this beautiful serene confidence. That should be the foundation, so.
What else, though? So I’d really want to prod you ’cause I like hearing the John Wilson prescriptive [John laughing] because we don’t get a lot of John Wilson prescriptiveness about the world. [John laughing]
We get, you know, John Wilson as editor speaking editorially, and we love the John Wilson book recommendations, but we do have, within the evangelical world, a great need for people who have observed it for a long time to offer wisdom about how we speak now, the kind of virtues that we need and how we need to grow as a church in our speaking and in our public presentation. So serene confidence is about the most beautiful phrase that I think I’ve heard, and I’m gonna work really hard to not [laughs] [John laughing] sloganize it.
Well, you know, I’m–
But I want more.
I’m a lot more encouraged about the state of things than many of my friends are. And maybe that’s just skewed, and maybe it has something to do with my temperament, you know, I don’t know. But I’ve been telling a number of people that one of the joys of my job is encountering a lot of young writers. And I love the writers like Mark Noll and Nick Wolterstorff who’ve been guides to me for much of my intellectual life, but it’s also a special joy to see new writers, young writers coming along. And they’re not part of any movement. They don’t add up to some kind of platform, but they exhibit different ways of being Christian, of being the body of Christ, and I just find that wonderfully encouraging. [introspective techno music]
You’re more optimistic than your peers and many of us about the state of things.
In some ways. I mean, I think the world has always been a place that’s full of joy and sorrow and of laughter and of horror, and it’s true that there are certain places and times, you know, Germany and the Nazi era and other times when there seems to be a kind of concentrated darkness that is overwhelming, but the sad fact is that there are always a lot of terrible things going on.
And sometimes, we’re complicit in them without hardly being aware of it. And so it’s not like I wanna walk around saying, “Everything just keeps getting better and better.”
But on the other hand, I honestly don’t see our contemporary situation quite the way that a lot of my dear friends do.
Why do you think that the declinists’ narrative, if we can call it that, the narrative that the world is getting worse. Why do you think it has a resonance for many of your peers? Why do you think it is such a easy story to tell? And again, you know, what kind of virtues do you think that we lack, or excuse me, and that we can cultivate within ourselves in order to have a more realistic assessment of the state of things, if you’re right?
Well, I think that there are always these temptations. There’s also the opposite temptation towards the kind of utopian thinking that you find–
from someone like Ray Kurzweil, it’s a–
That has a tremendous appeal, as well. And I’m not so inclined, I’m not saying that we should never psychologize in that way, but I’m not so inclined to spend time thinking about “Why do you believe that?” I would rather just talk to you about why it seems to me to be not an adequate, not an adequate description of the common reality that we share. Not completely wrong, but too partial, too one sided. I’d rather talk to you about that than presume to figure out why you hold this view that I think is wrong.
Yeah. [introspective techno music]
With one of the categories that we hear a lot within Christian discourse is that of engagement. We need to engage culture, we need to, you know, engage the world around us. We’ve started to hear some discourse from some corners of Christendom lately about a kind of withdrawal. Rod Dreher has written about The Benedict Option, a kind of detachment from society and so on.
I’m just interested to hear your take in light of sort of everything that we talked about, the kind of virtues that we need to have. How should Christians think about how we should live now? Is it a posture of sort of leaning in and engaging, is it a posture of potentially withdrawing from our broader discourse? Or are those categories just the wrong way to think about this, and if so, how should we?
I would say first, and this probably isn’t a very exciting answer, that some will be called to engage, and some will be called to withdraw, and the engagement will take many different forms, but I’d also say I think the person in my life who, in many respects, seems to me the most engaged is a person who never, never uses the word culture, would never read these discussions that you and I are both interested in. And I’m not, I’m not–
I love these kinds of discussions but, and that would be my wife, Wendy. And so she’s engaged, for instance, like she was a hospice volunteer for many years. And now, she’s doing part-time home health care. And she has gone and made lunch once a week for a woman in her 90s and sung hymns with her. And that’s not the kind of engagement that a lot of people are thinking of when they use the term engagement, which includes–
political engagement and other things which I think can be part of what we’re called to do, but it’s not like that. Neither is it what most people think of when they think of withdrawal.
You know. But and it’s not something that is particularly exciting, you know. It’s very mundane. But it’s also beautiful. And so I think I’m humbled, I’m humbled by that example, and I think, well, at least I’m earning a paycheck [laughs]. [Matthew laughing] Makes it possible for Wendy to do those kinds of things. And, you know, hopefully I’m contributing to that. But there’s so much, there’s so much that goes on that escapes the categories that we use when we talk, for instance, of the option to engage or the option to withdraw.
Let’s just say that there’s never a shortage of good ways that we can live out that serene confidence that you and I were talking about earlier. We’re never going to, we’re never going to run out of good things to do.
Well, John, I’d have to say that you’re doing much more than earning a paycheck so that your wife can do [John laughing] the good work that she’s doing.
John: Well, maybe a little, I hope.
Much more than that. You’re a gift to the church, and you have just the kind of serene confidence which, Lord knows, we need a lot more of. And I’m really grateful for that and grateful for the work you’ve done at Books & Culture, as I think many people are. So thank you, thank you for your time today.
Well, thank you. [introspective techno music]