Southern California Bound: The Christian Web Conference

I had planned to post the next installment of the ongoing series today, but when I got to work, I realized that I had saved a previous draft of it (which instantly induced all kinds of anxieties about whether I had saved my revisions appropriately, anxieties that will not be mollified for another 8 hours!).

 Instead, I thought I would let readers know that I will be in Southern California this weekend for the Christian Web Conference, where I will be arguing (yup!) that while the church may exist and minister online, church congregations should not gather online (at least as a substitute for physical gathering).

I'd love to meet as many of you as possible.  The conference is being held at Biola (my dear alma mater).  If you are in the area, come on out and say "hi.

Tags | Technology

Libraries, Love, and the Presence of Uncertainty

I once had aspirations of doing a project where I was going to post sections of a book I'm (still!) trying to write on romance, but life got in the way.  It has a tendency of doing that for me--I start something, it goes well, then I get overcommitted and stuff falls apart.  

But in this case, despite delays, I'm pressing ahead.  And since I changed jobs to a position that doesn't force me to work more than 70 hours a week, I've started to get my writing groove back.

So here we return to it.  The previous installment is here, and someday I'll put together a full list of posts.  But if you haven't been with us yet, that's okay.  I'm starting fresh (for seemingly the 15th time!).  You can start fresh with us.  To the book, then:

My wife and I fell in love in a library. It was, for us, the most romantic thing we could possibly do. As our romance slowly developed, we would spend long hours in the reading room at our fine institution’s center of learning reading, writing, and (above all) discussing the deep things of God. Judging by the responses of other patrons, our conversations were frequently disruptive, though the ‘Shhh’s” we incurred were at least as loud as our muffled laughter.

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Twilight and Substanceless Romance

It’s been a while since I’ve joined in on a non-movie cultural phenomenon. I skipped Harry Potter, and I’ve never really paid much attention to contemporary music or American Idol. (Do I feel bad for this? Not at all.)

But at the urging of a friend and on the strength of my curiosity, I cracked open the latest teen sensation Twilight, the first in a series by Stephanie Meyer. And I’m not sure I’m better for it.

But first, a random Twilight fact for those who are the least bit interested. The bulk of the story takes place in the Pacific Northwest in a small town named Forks. I, unlike most of the world, have been to Forks. In fact, they were in the same league as my high school, so I have played basketball inside their tiny gym. The thing I remember best about Forks—besides their rabid fans—was a sign over the entryway to their gym reminding students(!) to discard their chewing tobacco prior to entering. Seriously. And yes, this post is largely an excuse to tell that story.

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Regnerus's Case for Early Marriage Revisited

Al Mohler is right:  the most helpful aspect of Mark Regnerus' case for early marriage is that he makes it, and makes it in the pages of Christianity Today.  By bringing the issue to the forefront, Regnerus has done an enormous service.  Along the way, he pens these four paragraphs that I very much wish I had written myself, as I have said very similar things on this blog:


 The answer is pretty straightforward: While our sexual ideals have remained biblical and thus rooted in marriage, our ideas about marriage have changed significantly. For all the heated talk and contested referendums about defending marriage against attempts to legally redefine it, the church has already ceded plenty of intellectual ground in its marriage-mindedness. Christian practical ethics about marriage—not the ones expounded on in books, but the ones we actually exhibit—have become a nebulous hodgepodge of pragmatic norms and romantic imperatives, few of which resemble anything biblical.

Unfortunately, many Christians cannot tell the difference. Much about evangelical marital ethics is at bottom therapeutic: since we are pro-family, we are sure that a happy marriage is a central source of human contentment, and that romantic love is the key gauge of its health. While our marriage covenants are strengthened by romance, the latter has no particular loyalty to the former.

Our personal feelings may lead us out of a marriage as quickly as they lead us into one. As a result, many of us think about marriage much like those outside the church—as a capstone that completes the life of the autonomous self. We claim to be better promise keepers, but our vision of what marriage means is not all that unique. When did this all change?

The shift has gone largely unnoticed over the past half-century. As we finally climb toward multigenerational economic success, we advise our children to finish their education, to launch their careers, and to become financially independent, since dependence is weakness. "Don't rush into a relationship," we caution them. "Hold out for a spouse who displays real godliness." "First loves aren't likely the best fit." "You have plenty of time!" we now remind them. "Don't bank on a mate." Even those who successfully married young now find themselves dispensing such parental wisdom with little forethought.

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On Marrying Young

One worry about how our culture approaches marriage that is about to get a lot more traction is the fact that the marriage age is increasing.*  Men, for instance, now delay (on average) marriage until age 28, a significant jump from where it was in the 50s and 60s.

The folks at Boundless, for instance, have been making the case for marrying young for some time.  And they are, after all, the standard bearers on issues of dating and relationships.  And now Mark Regnerus, one of America's best sociologists of religion, is making the case.  Or you can read Ben Domenech's excellent analysis on marriage trends here (and my response). They're all worth reading.

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Moving Forward: Confronted by the Love of Christ

I'm slowly moving this forward.  The next saga in my life involves being a Senior Editor over at, which is a great opportunity since Joe Carter has run one of the best blogs anywhere there the last five years.  So editing this thing has proved (once again!) more challenging than I thought it would be.

But now we get to the payoff:  I feel like the rest is simply a set up for the next few chapters, where I try to articulate how integrating our lives around the Gospel actually affects the decisions that young people make with respect to romance.  To the next stage, then....

We sat oblivious to everything around us, attempting to muffle our laughter-and failing miserably. Without warning, a piercing "Shhhhhhhhh!" of an aspiring academic rained down on us from the balcony above, but only with a momentary effect. Propriety can only survive so long in the face of humor, and the reproving "shhhh" only made us laugh harder. Though neither of us knew it at the time, she would eventually become my wife.

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A Brief Summation of the Previous Seven Posts

 This is my conclusion to the end of the chapter--it's less point by point, and more "here's the one big takeaway I want you to get."  Does it work?

It is a painful paradox that we are caught in: we crave love and acceptance, but then create false selves that are based on other people’s perceptions. In doing so, we lack the very connection and communion that we so desperately want. Our strategy to feel loved is to keep people out by performing well, or controlling others, or withdrawing, but these simply keep people out of the part that needs love—the core of our being.

The effect on our romantic relationships is, of course, disastrous. Because we want to be loved, but on our terms, we resist any true “nakedness.” Because we are fundamentally ashamed of ourselves, we clothe ourselves with fig leaves and act in ways that will make other people affirm us, at least for a while. Or we fight like crazy to feel affirmed—at least for a while. The unfortunate reality, though, is that because the foundation of the relationship is false—a need by each person to feel affirmed by the other—the feelings of affirmation and love eventually wear off, leaving only hollowness and emptiness.

It is the point of this chapter that relationships go awry because people are awry. The mission for change is simple: fix the people, the culture will follow. But to fix the people, individual Christians must begin to take personal responsibility for their problems and seek holiness with a zeal and enthusiasm they have never before known. Grace isn’t cheap and sanctification isn’t easy. If Christians are to navigate romance well, it is crucial that they begin opening themselves to the working of God in their own hearts and discover a new basis for their lives. It is to the exploration of this new reality that we turn next.
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Emotional Fusion and the Fear of Ourselves

So, we reach the end of this long, winding chapter.  

A summary comes on Wednesday (I promise), but for now I leave you with this odd thought:  fundamentally, we are deeply afraid of ourselves.  I am not interested in secular notions of self-affirmation, nor do I think such ideas helpful.  We are, after all, made to be in Christ.  But it is clear to me that our generation thinks very differently about ourselves than previous generations, and that much of that is problematic.

I am not ashamed to admit that I am a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Unlike some people, I was not raised on them so I am a latecomer to the tales. But I appreciate the depth, wisdom, and Christian lessons of Tolkien's masterful story. Though it pains the purists, my introduction to the stories actually came through the films-it was only after seeing Fellowship of the Ring that I began to read the books.

In a scene from that movie, Aragorn, the future King, gazes down at a broken sword and wonders if he has the ability to fulfill his duty. The sword was his father's, who had failed in his task. "His blood flows through my veins," he laments while wrestling with fears of failure. It is a moment of self-doubt, of quiet reflection about the limits of his ability and the depth of his own goodness. His sword, which is symbolic of his Kingship, is broken. It will not be until the third film that his sword is remade and Aragorn assumes the full responsibility of his Kingdom.
The scene where Aragorn wrestles with his doubt is crucial in this respect: it is not present at all in the books, which were written some forty years prior to the movies. For whatever reason, the makers of the movie decided that it was an important scene to include. The Aragorn of the books is far more confident, assertive, and self-assured than the Aragorn of the movies. He also assumes the role of King far earlier than the movies, indicating that he clearly understands his mission and is confident that he will fulfill it.

Why the change? Why did the makers of the film make Aragorn so agonized about whether he would be able to fulfill his duty as King? The answer, I think, is that the makers of the movie made Aragorn a man of their times, not Tolkien's. Our 21st century culture resonates with his questioning, with his probing of the dark corners of his soul, and with the doubt he feels about his ability to fulfill his mission. We suffer from a sense of foreboding that we hold within us some darkness that will overwhelm us. In other words, we are full of fear. In a moment of seriousness and gravity, Chesterton writes,

The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place. The danger of it is that he himself should not keep the appointment. And in modern times this terror of one's self, of the weakness and mutability of one's self, has perilously increased, and is the real basis of the objection to vows of any kind.

In other words, we fear marriage because we fear ourselves. We cover ourselves with fig leaves not only to keep others out, but to keep ourselves out. We are deeply ashamed of who we are, causing us to avoid being "naked" at any price.

This fear of ourselves has been unfortunately magnified by the divorce culture. We see failure all around and it seems presumptuous to think that we can survive marriage unscathed. The fear of divorce is heavy upon us, and our feelings of inadequacy are occasionally overwhelming. There is, of course, some good reason to doubt ourselves. Darkness cuts through the human heart. But we have lost the ability to acknowledge our sinfulness while simultaneously retaining our confidence that we can, with hard work, remain faithful to the marriage vow.

The reason? We are part Aragorn-from-the-movies, part Treebeard (another character). In the movie, Treebeard declines to fight against evil until he sees with his own eyes a horrendous evil that he cannot explain. Before the vision, Treebeard had attempted the path of neutrality, remaining uncertain about whether the fight was actually the right fight. And so it is with us. Even as Christians, we are afflicted with both self-doubt and an insidious doubt that we are right about the world and everyone else is wrong. We have made value relative-beauty is in the eye of the beholder-and consequently been neutralized in the fight against evil.

This is the challenge young people must face: we are, on the whole, unsure of whether there is anything worth fighting for, anything worth devoting our lives to. Like Aragorn, we lack confidence in ourselves. Like Treebeard, we lack confidence in the mission. It is Chesterton, again, who taught me this:

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert -- himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt -- the Divine Reason...Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping: not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

There is no one more doubtful about their aims and goals than my generation, especially in romance. We have been told that marriage is better than the alternative, but aren't persuaded enough to pursue marriage with a sense of mission and purposefulness. And because marriage and romance is difficult, we will not do the hard work it takes to find the intimacy we have been made for. We have no interest in going to the home that has been prepared for us. And at bottom is a deep anxiety about our own ability to keep the marriage vow, an anxiety that has been reinforced by our own experiences of divorce.

But there is good reason to press on. The joys of intimacy are awarded to those willing to traverse the dangers of marriage and romance. We must acknowledge sin, but remain confident that we too can remain faithful. We must make sure our goals are correct, and then double our effort to reach them. Marriage is for those who want pleasures so rich, so lofty that they are willing to brave hell to win them. It is for those who believe in marriage so deeply and passionately that they will fight for the marriage against all foes, including their own sin. That is the romance to which we are called.
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When Emotional Fusion Happens

Back from a long hiatus...lots of reasons for it, no excuses.  I'll try to keep them to a minimum from here on out.  The summer is coming, which is typically a slower time for my job.

When we left off, we were discussing the role of emotional fusion in romantic relationships.  I'm pretty convinced that every young romance deals with this to some degree, especially young college students, many of whom are trying to establish an identity separate from their parents.  But how does one know whether emotional fusion is an issue?  This is my attempt to articulate some of the problems that arise in a relationship from it... 

One of the best tests of whether a couple is emotionally fused or not is how they handle conflict. Emotionally fused relationships often struggle to live in any sort of disagreement. Because individuals in emotionally fused couples define intimacy as “getting what I want” they will often listen only to those messages that make them feel loved. But as therapist David Schnarch puts it,
"Communication is no assurance of intimacy if you can’t stand the message. “Good communication” is often mistaken for your partner perceiving you the way you want to be seen or understood. “We don’t communicate” is code for “I refuse to accept that message—send me a different one! How dare you see me [or the issue] that way!”
People attempt to put boundaries on their ‘nakedness’ with the other people, wanting only to hear good things about themselves. They want the fig leaves to remain up. When the fig leaves come off and criticism comes out, they will often react defensively or with a similar assault. The primal response of “fight or flight” takes over, causing needy individuals to withdraw in denial or attack in anger.
Managing conflict, then, is a crucial skill for any relationship. It is essential to be open an honest with our frustrations and feelings, but not necessarily as we are feeling them. One of the best things my wife and I did while we were dating was take “Laguna trips.” We would drive to Laguna Beach once a month and sit and talk about the frustrations we had felt and the problems in the relationship that we discerned. They were difficult conversations, but the structured and intentional setting helped us manage the conflict. And what’s more, I knew that when my wife did say something that was bothering her, she had thought about it for a long time and wasn’t saying it to hurt me or harm me. Though it didn’t feel like it, I knew that she told me because she wanted to help me grow in holiness and love.
What I realized during those same “Laguna trips,” though, is that emotionally fused individuals are not particularly good at receiving criticism. Because my identity was wrapped up in my girlfriend, criticism felt like she didn’t love me. Because my sense of self was tied to her perspective, I wanted to feel loved, and hearing about her frustrations just didn’t do it for me. Remember, for emotionally fused individuals, intimacy often means ‘getting what I want.’ I began to realize that I was resistant to criticism in part because I was concerned it would lead to rejection (as it had so many times prior). I wanted her to see me as good and perfect—to see only the fig leaves—and her (often very true!) criticisms revealed the deeper sins I wanted to hide from her. Each “Laguna trip” was a test of courage for me: would I open myself and acknowledge the sins my girlfriend already saw? Or would I feel threatened and resist her by attempting to persuade her that she was wrong in her assessment?
Not surprisingly, one of the major struggles of young relationships is jealousy. And not surprisingly, emotionally fused relationships are often jealous relationships. Because the identity of each person is in the other, any potential rejection is seen as a threat that must be cut off. Every effort is often made to protect the other person from leaving, an attitude that breeds suspicion and fear. For insecure people, conversations between our partners and other attractive and engaging people can remind us of the possibility of betrayal. Envy and jealousy are the only possibilities in this sort of environment.
Another major struggle for new relationships is “distance.” In chapter two, I mentioned that some relationships become “joined-at-the-hip.” Any type of distance in the relationship becomes troublesome. Because the couple is emotionally fused, they want to constantly feel loved by the other, which means constantly being around the other. But “I-Thou” relationships, such as Adam and Eve had before the fall, necessarily have distance. There is a dash between the “I” and “Thou,” a dash that indicates difference and unlikeness. “I” is not “Thou,” and because “I” doesn’t need “Thou,” they can be apart from each other, both physically and relationally. But for emotionally fused individuals, emotional (and physical!) distance is difficult. Boundaries indicate distance, but boundaries exist to prevent us from getting what we want, which makes emotionally fused people feel unloved. Distance means distinction, and distinction means potential rejection. And rejection is, well, highly undesirable.
It is for this reason that many young people will often complain about feeling ‘suffocated’ in their relationships. They are, whether they know it or not, emotionally fused to the other person. The key lines to listen for are, “I just need my space” or “I need my freedom.” It is a sure sign that the boundaries between the two individuals have been blurred, that they have traded their “I-Thou” relationship for emotional fusion. The painful irony of emotional fusion is that it devours both people, not just one. As each person struggles to maintain a sense of identity that is not dependant upon the other person, the relationship will often swing from being “joined-at-the-hip” to total isolation, and back again. “Breaking up” never solves the central issue, which is the problem that made the relationship turn bad to begin with. And as a result, after a period of time individuals will often gravitate back toward the same person or a similar person.
There is one final indicator. Just like Adam and Eve clothed themselves in fig leaves, individuals who are emotionally fused will also practice what is known as “self-presentation.” Unlike the self-disclosure required for intimacy, self-presentation seeks to protect the inner depths of a person by presenting only those aspects that the other might consider valuable. As David Schnarch puts it,
To accomplish this less than virtuous goal, you start misrepresenting, omitting, and shading information about who you really are (self-presentation), rather than disclosing the full range of yourself (intimacy). Self-presentation is the opposite of intimacy; it is a charade rather than an unmasking.
The problem of self-presentation is often attributed to dating. But the problem is deeper than the system—it is an indication of a genuine lack of maturity and wholeness by those who are dating. Fundamentally, it is a problem in the people, not in the culture.
The need to “self-present” is, in fact, painfully obvious in realms beyond romance. It seems clear that in youth culture and beyond, acceptance is often measured by something as shallow as wearing the right clothes or having the right hairstyle. We place an extraordinary amount of significance on looking and dressing a certain way. But our addiction to fashion is simply an indication that we are dependant upon others for love. Because we are persuaded that beauty and value lie in the eyes of the beholder, young men and women must move heaven and earth to appear beautiful to that beholder. Though much has been made of this problem for women, young men are spending increasing amounts of time in the weight room in order to achieve ‘the look.’ Without it, they run the risk of not getting women, who are starting to prefer younger, better looking men. The important point is that emotional problems are equal-opportunity. They do not privilege one gender over another.
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'from fire by fire' is a place to explore issues of singleness, romance and God. I want to ask better questions about these issues than any you have yet encountered...