“This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.” Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
by John Ellis
After I received an especially bad review, the theatre’s technical director attempted to console me with the words, “Remember, opinions are like a******s; everyone has one, and they mostly stink.”
Crude, yet containing much truth.
Over evaluating our opinions is not a 21st phenomenon. The conflation of opinion with knowledge is a longstanding human problem. The forbidden fruit in the Garden didn’t eat itself, after all, and all those inferiorly made bricks didn’t form into the Tower of Babel all by themselves. However, as a friend recently commented to me, we are currently in an epistemological crisis. While not the first epistemic crisis in human history, nor the final one (assuming that King Jesus doesn’t return soon, that is), this one has far reaching effects that are exacerbated because of particular idiosyncrasies found in our milieu. The consequences of our post-Enlightenment’s epistemologies that all share shoulder-space on the Sisyphean boulder of autonomy have combined with the rise of the internet, especially social media sites, to create a perfect storm of absurdity. The correct answer to the question “who exactly is writing the cultural script?” is a combination of Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter. Toss in a little Luigi Pirandello, and I’m pretty sure the teacher won’t mark you down any. Keep our current trajectory up, though, and the only correct answer will be Antonin Artaud – the most Nietzschean of playwrights; or was Nietzsche the most Artaudian of philosophers? Regardless, they both realized that while we’re busy celebrating our murder of God, a sinister chaos has trounced the bouncers and is dismantling Club Pigsty’s doors. And that script ain’t going to end well.
If all, or most, of the names in the previous paragraph are foreign to you, no worries. Wax eloquent anyway. After all, adhering to today’s epistemic rules, and even though you’ve probably never even heard of him, your opinion about Antonin Artaud is just as valid as mine.
For what it’s worth, as an individual who is well-versed in absurdist theatre/playwrights, my *ahem* opinion is that the world of Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, Pinter, et al. splashed on the boards of MFA programs across this country tells the story of the only plausible conclusion to modernism, specifically the modernism of Locke, Comte, etc., and, most especially, the modernist epistemology called Foundationalism. To be clear, even though it should already be obvious, I am not a fan of modernism. For all his good intentions, I believe that Locke’s state of nature is the town square where we built the gallows used to execute our Creator. My “opinion” is that Comte’s positivism strokes our hubristic ego in a way that induces worldview blindness. Running parallel with that, I reject Foundationalism because it’s the, well, foundation of our very own Tower of Babel. Ergo, I also don’t agree with the absurdist vision. I mean, I recognize that the absurdists are right, assuming the validity of all the other stuff. It’s that I reject the belief that it’s inevitable because I also reject the validity of all that other stuff. Therefore, I’m standing outside Club Pigsty, listening to the revelers inside celebrate their autonomy, and I’m pleading, “Hey, my dudes, in my Father’s house are many mansions and even better parties. Mansions that the chaos can’t assail and parties that it can’t disturb, by the way.”
Look, here’s my point, or, rather, the problem I see: Most likely, the overwhelming majority of people reading this will have little understanding of what I just said. The names and concepts referenced will find no place to settle on the pegboard of their mind. And, undoubtedly, many will not bother to do a little research in order to fill in gaps as an aid in the critical thinking skills to help determine if they agree with me or not. Which, on one hand, is fine. Take me, for example.
I recently began reading a book on Roman Triumphs. I wrote, “began reading,” because I put the book down after about two and a half chapters. Simply put, I was bored. With the book. I’m sure that the Roman parades/festivals that were held as great celebrations of impressive Roman victories is a fascinating topic. No doubt, there are other books on the subject that will do a better job at piquing my interest in Roman Triumphs. All that confessed, I must also add the confession that I do not have the slightest opinion about the author’s thesis. And that’s because I have not earned the right to have an opinion. My knowledge of Roman Triumphs is abysmal. I do, however, understand the concept of hubris. So, if I ever meet the author, I will happily defer to whatever she asserts about Roman Triumphs while keeping my mouth shut, unless I’m asking questions, that is.
To reiterate, if you find everything I have written above incomprehensible, boring, and leaving with you with next to zero desire to do any further research, that’s great! Seriously. Kudos to you. At least you’re being honest. Well, you’re being honest if, like me and Roman Triumphs, you accept that it would be hubristic of you to disagree with me. That being said, ….(read those previous three words as if my voice is trailing off) … if, let’s say, after reading the above paragraphs filled with five dollar words, names of people you’ve never heard of, and concepts like epistemological crisis, absurdism, modernism, and Sisyphean boulders of autonomy with little understanding of what I’m asserting, and then you think any version of “I disagree, John,” whether solely in your mind or out loud in a comment section, you are part of the evidence which I present to bolster the claim that our society may very well be sunk. Chaos has breached Club Pigsty’s doors, chained those doors shut from the inside, and is currently torching the entire place while the revelers, including you, are too busy popping and locking our society’s collective dance of autonomous rebellion against God to notice. So, thanks.
Read that last, two-word sentence as if there were such a thing as a font called “acerbic.”
However, I must admit, as the imminent 1990’s philosopher Stephanie Tanner oft said, “How rude!”
I apologize. Please forgive me.
Let me back up a bit and provide some pedagogical context. Although, fair warning, at the end of this, I’m going to be rude again and another apology will not be forthcoming.
I do not like Facebook. Or social media, in general. It’s been about eight months since I shuttered my Facebook account. The only reason – seriously, the only reason – I had an account to begin with was because I felt obligated to promote my articles on the site. Ethically obligated and possibly contractually obligated. My editor was a little vague when I asked her to interpret the part of my contract that mentioned promoting my articles on social media. So, in order to err on the side of right, I promoted my articles on Facebook, which, tautologically, required a Facebook account. Anyway, after quitting my writing job (you can read a little bit more about that decision by clicking here), and by way of subtraction, I was left with zero reasons to remain on Facebook.
At first, I thought, “You know, it’s obnoxious when people make a big deal out of leaving Facebook. Don’t be that guy, John.”
That thought drove me to a game plan. A game plan that reflects an obnoxious level of overthinking it, I now realize, but a game plan, nonetheless.
I decided that I would post less and less until I wasn’t posting anything at all. Eventually, I assumed, everyone would forget I was even there, and then I could delete my account, and no one would be the wiser. Like most plans, my plan didn’t go as, well, planned. In fact, it reinforced why I think Facebook is the modern-day equivalent of a mad tea party but without the fun of a possibly-coked-up, talking rabbit.
Here’s what happened. It’s a two-parter.
For my now defunct blog A Day In His Court, I wrote an article in defense of Rachael Denhollander. She had tweeted something about David raping Bathsheba. A position, by the way, that is held by very conservative men like John Piper as well as held by a hard-core complementarian woman who threatened to have me and my fellow pastors excommunicated from our church for being egalitarians. No matter that it’s a position held by many across the theological spectrum, the angry denunciations began, to the point where Denhollander was accused of heresy to go along with the personal insults and slanders about her splashed around the interwebs. The thesis of my blog post was that it’s okay to disagree with her, but it’s not okay to insult, slander, and accuse a sister in Christ of heresy over a legitimate interpretation of the Biblical data. I made the mistake of sharing that blog post on my Facebook page.
Almost every one of the over twenty comments was arguing about whether David raped Bathsheba or not, ignoring the fact that in the article I clearly stated that I had zero interest in adjudicating the correct exegesis of the David-Bathsheba episode but, instead, wanted to confront all of us with how we respond to and treat those with whom we disagree. The ensuing debate on Facebook prompted me to complain to my wife, “I don’t think any of these people actually read my article.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised.
During my time as a professional writer it became apparent early on that many of the commenters on my articles would read the headline, skip the article, and jump right into the comment section to express their very strong opinions about the article. It was apparent because the comments would often make assertions I had addressed/answered/refuted(presumably) in my article’s argumentation. At first, it was frustrating. Eventually, it became amusing, but it shouldn’t have.
The responses from my Facebook friends to my blog post demonstrates how unamusing it is. You see, it’s one thing to dismiss the epistemic hubris of mostly anonymous voices. It’s another thing altogether to be confronted with the scope of the problem by people that you know – highly educated people, some of them pastors.
It’s another thing existentially, to be clear. In essence, it’s the same thing. And that’s the point. Both demonstrate that we, as a society, believe that our opinions always have value. The question is, why do we believe that?
Of course, that’s assuming that they didn’t read the article but commented anyway. But what if they did read the article? Well, that’s just as bad, if not worse. It means one of two things, at the least. One, it means that they lack reading comprehensions skills, are unaware of that, yet are still enabled and encouraged to use a public platform to disseminate their uninformed opinions as if those opinions carry the same epistemic authority as those who do have a reading comprehension level above that of a middle schooler to go along with critical thinking skills and an understanding/appreciation of a legitimate dialectic. Secondly, it might be that they understood my thesis and subsequent arguments but willfully chose to ignore my thesis and arguments in order to do the very thing I was arguing against. What that reveals is that those people, at the least, and I believe that what happened in that comment section is reflective of broader society, read arguments with zero desire to listen. Society tells all of us, over and over, that we have a right to have our voices heard. Well, and asking again, albeit it in different way, on what authority? Or, rather, on whose authority does that supposed right derive?
But, enough. For now. For the record, I’m aware of the way in which many will read and interpret those previous paragraphs. To be blunt (why stop being blunt now, amirite?), the likely dismissals wrapped in charges of “John’s overly sensitive” and/or “John’s an egotistical jerk who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else” is evidence of a failure to follow and understand what I’m saying. So, if I may ask a favor: If that’s you, ask yourself, “Why is John making these assertions using this tone? And, more importantly, why is he doing so in a manner that runs the risk of alienating readers?”
Ask yourself those two questions, contemplate them for a while, and then keep reading. Here’s a hint – my reason is split in two: pedagogical and curiosity (both my curiosity and your curiosity – by the way, and spoiler alert, I never explain this hint, on purpose).
But, and getting back to the task at hand, and before interacting with my question from a few paragraphs above of “why do we believe that our opinions always have value?” I need to tell you the second part of the two-parter I promised.
Last fall, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary announced the hiring of Karen Swallow Prior, a scholar who is a lightning rod for the vitriol of insecure complementarian men. Sadly, yet predictably, Dr. Akin, SEBTS, and Dr. Prior were hit with a something-ton of hate upon the announcement. One of the most egregious slanders was the accusation that SEBTS hired a feminist who supports abortion. If you know even just a little about Dr. Prior, you know that’s a laughably stupid accusation.
In my blog post, I cited Dr. Prior’s actual words regarding abortion. You know, primary sources and all. No matter. My primary sources, as in Dr. Prior’s own words, were no match for many of the commenters’ a priori opinions about her. It didn’t matter that I kept pointing back to Dr. Prior’s actual words, I was told, several times, that I was too naïve to understand what was really happening and that Karen Swallow Prior was, indeed, a raving feminist who supports abortions (and if you want to push and pull on all that just a little bit, Gnosticism will reveal itself).
Once again, shortly after the dialectic debacle that was the comment section on my Rachael Denhollander post, I was confronted with the looming possibility that crafting arguments and then sharing those arguments was an exercise in futility – a spitting into the wind, if you will.
So, I promptly left Facebook.
“That’s all well and good, John,” you might be grumbling at this moment. “But all that was over eight months ago. Why now, all this time later, do you feel the need to expose yourself as an arrogant jerk in a too-wordy blog post?”
Well, because those two above examples were merely what drove me to discard my plan to sneak away from Facebook. And both examples are the mere tip of the gigantic iceberg of an epistemic crisis facing all of us. And it matters. Truly. More than most people realize. But, fine, fair enough. Those examples were over eight months ago. So, I’ll give you some recent ones.
Those who read my blog posts have probably noticed that I usually include lots of links (not in this one, of course). And I also often cite my sources using footnotes. No one is grading me. No one has asked me to cite sources and point people to the research upon which my arguments are based. Why do I do this?
Yes, exactly. Thank you.
And I actually have a real-life friend in mind who I assume will answer that question out loud upon reading it. And I’m also assuming that the rest of you were paying attention to his answer, so I’m going to move on.
Not only can I see how many people click on any given post and where the clicks originated (Facebook, Twitter, email notification, etc.), I can also see how many people click on the links I provide. Next to no one clicks on the links, is the answer. One of the more discouraging things for me as a writer is how few people click on the links I provide. For example, and this should go without saying, I am not an expert on epidemiology nor virology nor on the efficacy of face masks. I was aware of that when I wrote my recent post imploring fellow Believers to wear a face mask. My opinions on the matter are not relevant. My thoughts carry no epistemic authority. If you read my post and concluded that you agree with me without clicking on the links to the actual research, your response isn’t valid (unless, of course, you are an epidemiologist or an expert on the efficacy of face masks). Likewise, if you read my post and concluded that you disagree with me without clicking on the links to the actual research, your response is also not valid (unless, of course, repeat and rinse).
Look, and laying aside all my previous snark and acerbity, I don’t personally care. I do not have the right to be heard. Just because I have a blog doesn’t obligate people to listen to me nor does it obligate anyone to care what I think or say. I am a nobody. I never even finished college. And I’m not saying that in a self-flagellation manner looking to have my ego stoked. I meant that literally, and I’m saying it out loud as a protest against our collective harmful and nonsensical belief that all of our opinions matter, that we are all somebody and special. I am not. You are not, most likely (I do have some friends and acquaintances who are truly special within their discipline).
My opinions and thoughts about the efficacy of face masks are based on the research and authority of actual experts. Again, I’m not an expert. I’m not a valid source. If anyone were to say, “I wear a face mask because John Ellis told me I should,” you are wrong. No one should wear a face mask because I think they should. They should wear a face mask because the experts I linked to say they should (and I can provide you with a mountain of research demonstrating the efficacy of face masks I didn’t include in the post).
If you haven’t interacted with legitimate sources, then, at best, a correct posture of epistemic humility requires that you respond to questions about the efficacy of face masks with, “I do not know.” This, of course, raises the important question about sources.
A few days ago, I found myself in the unfortunate position of being an unwitting participant in a conversation about the COVID-19 epidemic with a couple whom I don’t really know. We were outside and socially distanced. However, I got the distinct impression that the socially distancing was solely due to me and my currently constant state of prickliness. A propositional statement was made about the spread of the virus in New York state. It was a propositional statement that contradicted what I had learned from my research. So, me being me, I asked, “What are your sources for that?”
Seemingly confused (I know I asked the question loudly enough), the man responded, “Huh?”
After I repeated the question, the man and his wife blurted out, “We know people in New York. Lots of people.”
Because it takes great effort, including preparation, to keep my face from revealing what I’m thinking, my look of disdain (for which I was wrong) caused the man to quickly add, “We know a doctor.”
With my brain about to explode, and by the grace of God I fought back the urge – all the urges – I simply muttered, “Okay. Never mind,” while doing my cowardly best to avoid making eye contact. My daughter informed me tonight that’s exactly how it went down from her vantage point.
If you read that anecdote and are confused as to why my brain almost exploded, chew on this: Many people, included possibly you, are touting opinions and belief about the coronavirus pandemic based on sources that would get a high school research paper returned with a giant, red “F” scrawled across the top.
Over these last few months, I have watched a parade of people I know tout propositional statements based on news outlets, blogs, and YouTube videos. Those are not legitimate sources; at best, they’re secondary sources. For example, if CNN or FOX News quotes a research paper on the coronavirus, that makes them a secondary source. Now, outside of laziness or a complete misunderstanding of what constitutes legitimate sources, there is no reason to cite CNN or FOX instead of citing the actual research they cited. Unless, of course, you are writing a research paper for class and you are simply trying to meet your teacher’s quota for primary and secondary sources. Trust me, I’ve been there and done that.
It should be noted that I haven’t even touched on the epistemological absurdity of citing “sources” like OAN or Infowars or the YouTube video created by some random podiatrist who now believes that he is an expert on virology. Nor I have mentioned the ubiquitous, “Well, I feel …” followed by the stating of an opinion on Roman Triumphs by an individual who couldn’t be bothered enough to finish reading a solitary book on the subject. What is it that causes us to believe that our opinions always matter?
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t believe that laziness or lack of methodological understanding is the main problem for many people (it is for some, to be clear). Instead, I believe that it is evidence that they are blissfully a product of Locke, Comte, Foundationalism, etc., and that they believe that they have epistemic autonomy, even if they don’t even know what that means. They are products of our age. And, frankly, as worrisome as this pandemic is, that’s a far scarier reality (if you think my objective with this post is to get people to wear masks, well, I don’t have anything nice to say to you right now, and, as mama said …).
I get that even Lyotard eventually joined in the dissing of his book The Postmodern Condition, but his prediction in it that society was swiftly reaching a point where information would be conflated with knowledge carries the weight of truth. In fact, that prediction has come true. We are inundated with information unlike any previous generation. We don’t even have to work for it. Our phones and watches foist bits of info on us every time we look at them, not to mention our tablets, laptops, TVs, and great Aunt who spends her afternoons listening to Rush (the demagogue, not the band).
And the gluttonous intake of information is made worse when the consumption of it is done by a society that has been steeped in epistemologies of autonomy. The very epistemic air we breath is one of self-determination. The belief that I discover knowledge is rarely challenged, even among conservative Christians. Make no mistake, the positivist/foundationalist impulse quickly morphs into the belief that I am the author of truth. We’re all postmodernists now. The modernist coin so many conservative Christians cling to comes with a second side, whether they like it or not.
Furthermore, add in the fact that all of us have multiple platforms from which to share our opinions combined with the smooth massaging messages of self-affirmation (live your truth, you do you, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t follow your dreams, etc.), and it’s difficult to listen to anyone other than ourselves. Community is mostly fool’s gold in this epoch. Echo chambers do not encourage self-reflection much less growth, after all.
Ergo, an acknowledged expert in pick-whatever-discipline-you-want can post her research-based conclusion, and all of the rest of us are culturally and epistemically empowered to chime in with our uneducated and unfounded disagreements. Woe to the expert who dares play her expert card in the desperate attempt to push her qualified voice above the unqualified din.
Unfortunately, the variables creating our society’s epistemological crisis are variables that are part of the warp and woof of evangelicalism in this county. Our churches are in the midst of an epistemological crisis, too. I have had several pastor friends confess to me that they do not know how to minister to the people in their church because of this crisis. Sadly, I know even more pastors who are proudly standing in the middle of Club Pigsty and are the very people who are helping organize the party of epistemic autonomy for their congregation.
As I wrap up this rant, I must confess that I am skeptical of the ability of evangelicals in this country to leave that party on their own. We are too in love with our comforts and liberties to change our epistemology and its corresponding ethics of personal autonomy. I mean, July 4th weekend is upon us. No doubt, if I peek out of my self-imposed exile for any length of time these next few days, the evidence will reinforce my belief that many professing Christians in this country adhere to a religion shaped by the Enlightenment and not by God’s Word.
What’s to be done?
Me? I’m tempted to further isolate myself. To hide behind my books, beer, grilled steaks, and my desire to be left alone, spending every ounce of whatever it is I have to give on my family – my wife and our two kids. But I know that’s wrong. As much as I struggle with loving Christ’s Bride, I am aware of the truth that you can’t love Jesus without also loving the Church. I know that my cynicism teeters on the edge of sinfulness.
Hiding behind the voice of one of his pseudonymous characters, Kierkegaard, diagnosing society around him, writes in Either/Or, “My soul has lost possibility. Were I to wish for anything I would not wish for wealth and power, but for the passion of the possible.”
“The passion of the possible.”
By and large, God’s people in 21st century America have traded our birthright of the possible for the dull porridge of imminence spooned into our mouths by epistemologies of autonomy. Our birthright is eschatological. It always has been. In Hebrews, it’s revealed that Abraham and the other faithful Old Testament saints were looking ahead to the heavenly city to which their present promised land was but a shadow. The great king David confessed in the Psalms that he was looking for a Divine King as the fulfillment of the Covenant. Don’t believe me? Well, then you’d better hop over into line with the Pharisees when Jesus asked them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”?’ (Matthew 22:43-44).”
The “possible” is what’s to come after the return of King Jesus. That’s a possible that should excite our passions. Sadly, we’ve become comfortable in Club Pigsty, convincing ourselves that the god we are dancing in tribute to is the God of the Bible. That’s what happens when we allow ourselves to buy into the epistemic rebellion that says that we discover knowledge. The frustrations people face when attempting to engage in dialectic conversations is a symptom of the larger problem. Even if we were to compare sources, I daresay that for many of us, our worship of autonomy would be the determining rubric for interpretation and knowledge. Sadly, the party will go on, for now.
Come quickly, King Jesus.
 Obviously, it was more complex than that, but that’s what it essentially boiled down to. We refused to submit to her interpretation of Titus 2. Soak in the delicious irony of that.