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Ten Resources That Have Helped Me Make Sense of Our Current Culture and How Christians Are Responding to It

May 23, 2022
By Andy Naselli

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Eikon.

[Worldliness] makes sin look normal and righteousness seem strange.

—David Wells[1]

World is the bad part of culture.

—John Frame[2]

Our culture is rapidly making sin look normal and righteousness seem strange. The bad part of our culture seems to be getting worse so quickly that it is hard to keep up. Even a socially liberal tennis champion such as Martina Navratilova can shine brightly one moment (she is a lesbian who promotes homosexuality) and flame out the next because she has not kept up with the leftward march (she believes that males who identify as “trans women” should not compete in women’s sports). J. K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter series, was a cutting-edge voice for feminism one moment but now is canceled because her old-fashioned feminism doesn’t embrace every aspect of transgenderism.

What is happening in our culture? I approach that question not as a culture expert but as a pastor and theologian. My main burden is to do what Titus 1:9 says that an elder must do: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” As an elder or pastor, I must not only be able to teach sound doctrine, I also must be able to rebuke those who contradict sound doctrine. That is part of shepherding. That is why over the past several years I have been attempting to better understand our current culture and how Christians are responding to it.

The speed at which our culture is changing in a progressive direction is astonishing. To better understand our current culture, I have prioritized reading books that summarize and reflect on the bigger picture. If you try to make sense of our current culture primarily by watching the news or following news stories on social media, it may be challenging to step back and evaluate the big picture.[3]

I would like to share with you ten resources that have helped me make sense of our current culture and make sense of how Christians are responding to it. The first five resources are books by non-Christians (I), and the second five resources are by Christians (II).

Caveat: The following ten resources have helped me better understand troubling aspects of our current culture primarilyfrom the left. There are problems from the right, such as bizarre conspiracy theories[4] and “the syncretistic blending of Christianity and Americana.”[5] However, as George Yancey demonstrates, “Progressive Christians stress political values more than conservative Christians.”[6] Those moving to the left seem markedly aggressive and intolerant. My pastoral sense is that in our culture at this time problems from the left are a bigger danger than problems from the right — at least for the church I help shepherd and for churches similar to ours.[7]

I. Five Books by Non-Christians

1. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure[8]

Greg Lukianoff is an attorney who specializes in free speech, and Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University who previously taught psychology for sixteen years at the University of Virginia. Their book argues against what they call “three Great Untruths” that have become culturally common:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.
  3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people.

Here are two excerpts from their book that were “aha” moments for me when I read them. The first excerpt explains how some people now use the word trauma in a broader way:

Take the word “trauma.” In the early versions of the primary manual of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), psychiatrists used the word “trauma” only to describe a physical agent causing physical damage, as in the case of what we now call traumatic brain injury. In the 1980 revision, however, the manual (DSM III) recognized “post-traumatic stress disorder” as a mental disorder—the first type of traumatic injury that isn’t physical. PTSD is caused by an extraordinary and terrifying experience, and the criteria for a traumatic event that warrants a diagnosis of PTSD were (and are) strict: to qualify, an event would have to “evoke significant symptoms of distress in almost everyone” and be “outside the range of usual human experience.” The DSM III emphasized that the event was not based on a subjective standard. It had to be something that would cause most people to have a severe reaction. War, rape, and torture were included in this category. Divorce and simple bereavement (as in the death of a spouse due to natural causes), on the other hand, were not, because they are normal parts of life, even if unexpected. These experiences are sad and painful, but pain is not the same thing as trauma. People in these situations that don’t fall into the “trauma” category might benefit from counseling, but they generally recover from such losses without any therapeutic interventions. In fact, even most people who do have traumatic experiences recover completely without intervention.

By the early 2000s, however, the concept of “trauma” within parts of the therapeutic community had crept down so far that it included anything “experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful . . . with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” The subjective experience of “harm” became definitional in assessing trauma. As a result, the word “trauma” became much more widely used, not just by mental health professionals but by their clients and patients—including an increasing number of college students.

As with trauma, a key change for most of the concepts Haslam examined was the shift to a subjective standard. It was not for anyone else to decide what counted as trauma, bullying, or abuse; if it felt like that to you, trust your feelings. If a person reported that an event was traumatic (or bullying or abusive), his or her subjective assessment was increasingly taken as sufficient evidence. And if a rapidly growing number of students have been diagnosed with a mental disorder (as we’ll see in chapter 7), then there is a rapidly growing need for the campus community to protect them.[9]

Lukianoff and Haidt are drawing on an insightful article by Nick Haslam called “Concept Creep.”[10] The idea is that the definition of certain concepts — like trauma and abuse — expand. It used to be that someone might have trauma from being bombed in a foxhole during a battle; now a student may claim to have trauma because the teacher disagreed with the student’s opinion. This insight helps me because many people in our culture (including some Christians) are claiming to be victims of “trauma” and “abuse” in line with these new definitions.[11]

The second excerpt critiques what the authors call an “absurd” regulation of speech on American college campuses:

Vague and Overbroad Speech Codes: The code that epitomized the vagueness and breadth of the first wave of modern PC speech codes (roughly, the late 1980s to the mid-1990s) was the University of Connecticut’s ban on “inappropriately directed laughter.” The school was sued. It dropped the code as part of a settlement in 1990, but the same code, verbatim, was in effect at Drexel University in Philadelphia fifteen years later. That code was eventually repealed after being named one of FIRE’s “Speech Codes of the Month.” Along similar lines, a speech code at Alabama’s Jacksonville State University provided that “no student shall offend anyone on University property,” and the University of West Alabama’s code prohibited “harsh text messages or emails.” These codes teach students to use an overbroad and entirely subjective standard for determining wrongdoing. They also exemplify the Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelingsIf you feel offended, then a punishable offense must have occurred. Speech codes like these teach the Untruth of Fragility as well. They communicate that offensive speech or inappropriate laughter might be so damaging that administrators must step in to protect vulnerable and fragile students. And they empower college administrators to ensure that authority figures are always available to “resolve” verbal conflicts.[12]

This insight helps me because many people in our culture (including some Christians) are essentially arguing, “I’m hurt; therefore, you are unjust.” Or to use the theological category of sin, “I’m hurt; therefore, you sinned.”

2. The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars[13]

Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning are both professors of sociology (Campbell at California State University in Los Angeles and Manning at West Virginia University). Their book builds on an article they wrote in 2014 — an article that gained attention after Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt highlighted it in their work on the coddling of the American mind.

Microaggressions are small slights and insults, sometimes invisible to the person perpetuating them, such as one person asking another, “Where are you from?” Some people oppose “the microaggression program” because “microaggression complaints violate many longstanding social norms, such as those encouraging people to have thick skin, brush off slights, and charitably interpret the intentions of others.”[14] In other words, those who oppose the microaggression program argue that “someone’s interpretation of another person’s action” should not matter “more than the intention of the actor.”[15]

Campbell and Manning explain,

Microaggression complaints arise from a culture of victimhood in which individuals and groups display a high sensitivity to slight, have a tendency to handle conflicts through complaints to authorities and other third parties, and seek to cultivate an image of being victims who deserve assistance. This new moral culture, we shall see, differs sharply from other moral cultures—such as cultures of honor, where people are sensitive to slight but handle their conflicts aggressively, and cultures of dignity, where people ignore slights and insults. The current debate about microaggressions arises from a clash between dignity culture and the newer culture of victimhood. The debate is polarized because the moral assumptions of each side are so different.[16]

Complaints about microaggressions combine the sensitivity to slight that we see in honor cultures with the willingness to appeal to authorities and other third parties that we see in dignity cultures. And victimhood culture differs from both honor and dignity cultures in highlighting rather than downplaying the complainants’ victimhood.[17]

This victimhood culture permeates universities and corporations, which now commonly train people to avoid microaggressions that trigger victims (e.g., mansplaining, whitesplaining, straightsplaining, slut shaming, fat shaming, body shaming, cultural appropriation, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, misgendering, cissexism, transphobia, toxic masculinity).[18]

Microaggression complaints are similar to and different from other ways of handling conflict. First of all, they involve the public airing of grievances—complaining to outsiders. In this way microaggression complaints belong to a larger class of conflict tactics in which people who have grievances appeal to third parties. Second, microaggression complaints are attempts to demonstrate a pattern of injustice, and in this way they belong to a class of tactics by which people persuade reluctant third parties that their cause is just and they badly need help. And third, microaggression complaints are complaints about the domination and oppression of cultural minorities.[19]

It is not uncommon for self-identified victims to make false accusations against individuals and groups. Sometimes such hoaxes start a moral panic that weakens the due process that should protect the accused.[20] (This makes it more difficult to care for genuine victims.)

Greater victimhood can mean greater power: “Those who combine many victim identities will claim and be accorded greater moral status than those with only a few.”[21] A primary way to obtain victim status is to claim that others have harmed you with their words: “Some campus activists have even begun to argue that speech that harms the powerless is actually violence, or something akin to it.”[22]

These insights about victimhood culture help me because many people in our culture (including some Christians) have embraced this victim mindset.[23] For some there’s an allure to being a victim because it gives you more social capital and power. (This is one reason among others that some white people identify as transgender. They think it turns them from an oppressor into an oppressed minority.)

3. The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Identity, Morality[24]

Douglas Murray is a gay British journalist. Warning: His language is salty and sometimes explicit. His book has four chapters: “Gay,” “Women,” “Race,” and “Trans.” As Murray addresses these controversial topics, he does not fit the “politically correct” mold at all. He repeatedly highlights how mainstream culture is hypocritical, illogical, and intolerant as it views society as a system of power relations in line with Michel Foucault’s philosophy.[25] Here is an excerpt from each chapter:

Chapter 1, “Gay”: “Gay stories are crow-barred into any and all areas of news.”[26]

Chapter 2, “Women”: Even though science proves that men and women are significantly different, “Our societies have doubled-down on the delusion that biological difference — including aptitude differences — can be pushed away, denied or ignored.”[27]

Chapter 3, “Race”: Martin Luther King Jr. “dreamed his children should ‘one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’” But now, “Skin colour is everything.” Robin DeAngelo, author of White Fragility, tells audiences “how white people who see people as individuals rather than by their skin colour are in fact ‘dangerous’. Meaning that it took only half a century for Martin Luther King’s vision to be exactly inverted.”[28]

Chapter 4, “Trans”: “The women who have tripped on the trans tripwire over recent years have a number of things in common, but one is that they have all been at the forefront of every women’s issue. And this makes perfect sense. For if a significant amount of modern rights campaigning is based on people wishing to prove that their cause is a hardware issue, then trans forces other movements to go in precisely the opposite direction. Trans campaigners intent on arguing that trans is hardware can only win their argument if they persuade people that being a woman is a matter of software. And not all feminists are willing to concede that one.”[29]

Murray’s insights helped me better understand our culture’s groundswell and activism for LGBT, Critical Theory, and Critical Race Theory. What Murray calls “the madness of crowds” has contributed to rapidly changing our culture, a change that has been influencing how some Christians view the world now.

4. Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody[30]

Helen Pluckrose is editor-in-chief of Areo Magazine, and James Lindsay is a mathematician and political commentator. They are philosophically liberal and support liberal feminism and LGBT equality for “sexual minorities,” and they oppose what they call the “Social Justice Movement” or “wokeism.”

They trace how influential people have applied postmodernism to postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory and intersectionality, feminism and gender studies, and disability and fat studies. And they show how all that connects to the Social Justice Movement.

There is nothing complex about the overarching idea of intersectionality, or the Theories upon which it is built. Nothing could be simpler. It does the same thing over and over again: look for the power imbalances, bigotry, and biases that it assumes must be present and pick at them. It reduces everything to one single variable, one single topic of conversation, one single focus and interpretation: prejudice, as understood under the power dynamics asserted by Theory. Thus, for example, disparate outcomes can have one, and only one, explanation, and it is prejudicial bigotry. The question is just identifying how it manifests in the given situation. Thus, it always assumes that, in every situation, some form of Theoretical prejudice exists and we must find a way to show evidence of it. In that sense, it is a tool—a “practice”—designed to flatten all complexity and nuance so that it can promote identity politics, in accordance with its vision.[31]

We now have Social Justice texts—forming a kind of Gospel of Social Justice—that express, with absolute certainty, that all white people are racist, all men are sexist, racism and sexism are systems that can exist and oppress absent even a single person with racist or sexist intentions or beliefs (in the usual sense of the terms), sex is not biological and exists on a spectrum, language can be literal violence, denial of gender identity is killing people, the wish to remedy disability and obesity is hateful, and everything needs to be decolonized. That is the reification of the postmodern political principle. … Social Justice scholarship has become a kind of Theory of Everything, a set of unquestionable Truths with a capital T, whose central tenets were taken from the original postmodernists and solidified within the derived Theories.[32]

They summarize “Critical Race Theory” and intersectionality as “ending racism by seeing it everywhere.”[33]

Social Justice Theorists have created a new religion, a tradition of faith that is actively hostile to reason, falsification, disconfirmation, and disagreement of any kind. Indeed, the whole postmodernist project now seems, in retrospect, like an unwitting attempt to have deconstructed the old metanarratives of Western thought—science and reason along with religion and capitalist economic systems—to make room for a wholly new religion, a postmodern faith based on a dead God, which sees mysterious worldly forces in systems of power and privilege and which sanctifies victimhood. This, increasingly, is the fundamentalist religion of the nominally secular left.[34]

I first read this book in early September 2020 — after three months of rapid cultural change following George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis (while I was living in the Minneapolis area). As the ideologies of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi became how-to manuals in mainstream culture,[35] the insights in this book helped me better make sense of what has happened in secular culture as well as parts of conservative, Reformed evangelicalism.

5. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix[36]

Edwin Friedman was an ordained Jewish rabbi and practicing family therapist who died in 1996. When I recently read his book, I was astounded with his common-grace insights about leadership that directly apply to parents, pastors, and professors. (Friedman doesn’t even give a hint that he is a theist; to the contrary, naturalistic evolution is foundational to his therapeutic framework.)

Many Christians right now are attempting to highlight the danger that strong leaders can hurt people.[37] Friedman highlights the insidious danger that weak leaders can hurt people. Weak leaders can fail in two crucial areas:

  1. A failure of discernment (especially because of untethered empathy or enmeshment that hinders how others grow by affirming their low pain threshold)[38]
  2. A failure of nerve (especially by fearing to take stands at the risk of displeasing people)

People in our culture can be highly reactive and anxious and combustible—like a gas leak that can explode with just a spark. Or to change the metaphor, people in our culture can be like a body with a weak immune system that is defenseless against all kinds of diseases. Friedman argues, “Leaders function as the immune systems of their institutions.”[39] Good leaders are stable and sober-minded. Good leaders do not anxiously react to highly reactive people by herding the whole group to adapt to the least mature members of the group. Good leaders don’t let criticism ruin them but recognize that criticism comes with the territory of good leadership.

II. Five Resources by Christians

The following five resources by Christians have also helped me make sense of our current culture and make sense of how Christians are responding to it.

1. Neil Shenvi on Critical Theory and Social Justice[40]

Neil Shenvi earned a PhD in theoretical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and in 2015 — after five years of working at Duke University — he began focusing on home-schooling his four children. He is a member of the Summit Church, pastored by J. D. Greear.

Shenvi has become a specialist on Critical Theory by painstakingly reading primary sources and interacting with scholars and others on the issue. He explains that Critical Theory has four central premises:

  1. Social binary: “Society is divided into oppressed and oppressor groups.” Shenvi often highlights the below table from a book by New York Times Bestselling author Robin DiAngelo that presents Critical Theory as the truth.
  2. Oppression through ideology: “The dominant group maintains power by imposing their ideology on everyone.”
  3. Lived experience: “‘Lived experience’ gives oppressed groups privileged access to truths.”
  4. Social justice: Society needs “social justice” — that is, “the elimination of all forms of social oppression” (i.e., not just race and ethnicity but also gender, sexual orientation, religion, physical ability, mental ability, economic class, etc.).[41]

These four premises help make sense of tables like the one below, “Group Identities Across Relations of Power.”[42]

The book reviews and articles on Shenvi’s website have been enormously helpful to me.[44] He has also teamed up for several articles with Pat Sawyer, a college professor with a PhD in education and cultural studies.[45] Shenvi is characteristically fair, clear, penetrating, discerning, reasonable, and kind.

Shenvi’s work has been an incredibly helpful resource for me over the past several years as I have tried to better understand the Critical Social Justice cultural revolution. But Shenvi is not the only Christian who is helpfully addressing Critical Theory. Others include Thaddeus Williams,[46] Voddie Baucham,[47] and Owen Strachan.[48] I have also attempted to address the issue of ethnic harmony.[49]

2. Joe Rigney on Untethered Empathy[50]

Joe Rigney is president of Bethlehem College & Seminary, a pastor of Cities Church in St. Paul, and a teacher at Desiring God. Most people assume that empathy is always virtuous. Rigney (and others) explain how empathy can be sinful.

In an insightful interview with Doug Wilson that draws on insights from Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve (see above), Joe Rigney distinguishes between sympathy and empathy. He defines sympathy as showing compassion, and he defines (untethered) empathy as joining people in their darkness and distress and refusing to make any judgments. He uses the analogy of how to help someone who is sinking in quicksand: you could show sympathy by attempting to help him get out of the pit (e.g., by holding firmly to a branch with one hand while reaching into the pit with the other), or you could show (untethered) empathy by jumping into the pit with him.[51] Rigney is criticizing what C. S. Lewis calls “blackmail.” Lewis describes how a child “sulked in the attic” instead of apologizing in order to provoke others to give in and apologize to the sulking child.[52]

In Rigney’s interview, he gives some people the impression that he is inclined to disbelieve women who claim to have experienced abuse. That is not what Rigney intended to communicate. Rather, his point is that when someone comes to a pastor with an allegation, for example, the pastor should communicate that he is for that person but not necessarily that he is unconditionally committed to taking that person’s view on the matter. After Rigney’s interview, he wrote seven insightful articles that clarify his intention and advance the discussion.[53]

3. Carl Trueman on the Road to Sexual Revolution[54]

Carl Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. In this 425-page academic treatise, Trueman attempts to answer this question:

How has the current highly individualistic, iconoclastic, sexually obsessed, and materialistic mindset come to triumph in the West? Or, to put the question in a more pressing and specific fashion . . . Why does the sentence “I am a woman trapped in a man’s body” make sense not simply to those who have sat in poststructuralist and queer­theory seminars but to my neighbors, to people I pass on the street, to coworkers who have no particular political ax to grind and who are blissfully unaware of the rebarbative jargon and arcane concepts of Michel Foucault and his myriad epigones and incomprehensible imitators?[55]

Trueman methodically and dispassionately dissects and traces ideas and influences to show how we got from there to here. He explains the influential ideologies of Rousseau, Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Then Trueman shows how the revolution has triumphed with eroticism in art and pop culture; with expressive individualism in law, ethics, and education; and with transgenderism in the politics of the sexual revolution. It’s all connected. In our culture people tend to see identity as a matter of psychological and sexual choice.[56]

4. Kevin DeYoung on the Splintering of Reformed Evangelicalism[57]

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina, and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte.

DeYoung’s article “Why Reformed Evangelicalism Has Splintered: Four Approaches to Race, Politics, and Gender” is descriptive, not prescriptive. He is trying to make sense of the splintering we have experienced in conservative, Reformed evangelicalism since about 2016. What happened? DeYoung observes,

It seems to me there are at least four different “teams” at present. Many of the old networks and alliances are falling apart and being re-formed along new lines. These new lines are not doctrinal in the classic sense. Rather, they often capture a cultural mood, a political instinct, or a personal sensibility. You could label each team by what it sees as the central need of the hour, by what it assesses as the most urgent work of the church in this cultural moment. Let’s give each group an adjective corresponding to this assessment.

  1. Contrite: “Look at the church’s complicity in past and present evils. We have been blind to injustice, prejudice, racism, sexism, and abuse. What the world needs is to see a church owning its sins and working, in brokenness, to make up for them and overcome them.”
  2. Compassionate: “Look at the many people hurting and grieving in our midst and in the world. Now is the time to listen and learn. Now is the time to weep with those who weep. What the world needs is a church that demonstrates the love of Christ.”
  3. Careful: “Look at the moral confusion and intellectual carelessness that marks our time. Let’s pay attention to our language and our definitions. What the world needs is a church that will draw upon the best of its theological tradition and lead the way in understanding the challenges of our day.”
  4. Courageous: “Look at the church’s compromise with (if not outright capitulation to) the spirit of the age. Now is the time for a trumpet blast, not for backing down. What the world needs is a church that will admonish the wayward, warn against danger, and stand as a bulwark for truth, no matter how unpopular.”

DeYoung is trying to present each view in a positive light and in a way that adherents of each view would agree to. Here’s how he maps out those four views on a series of contemporary issues:[58]

Table 1. Race

Table 2. Politics and Gender

Doug Wilson calls DeYoung’s article a “fine descriptive piece.”[59] (I agree.) Wilson agrees with all of it, except for these two sentences by DeYoung:

The loudest voices tend to be 1s and 4s, which makes sense because they tend to see many of these issues in the starkest terms and often collide with each other in ways that makes a lot of online noise. The 1s and 4s can also be the most separatist, with some voices (among the 1s) encouraging an exodus from white evangelical spaces and some voices (among the 4s) encouraging the woke to be excommunicated.

DeYoung is a 3, and Wilson is a 4. Wilson thinks that 3s can be separatists by not associating with 4s in order to win the approval of 1s and 2s. I think DeYoung is correct that in general 1s and 4s are loudest and most separatist, and I also agree with Wilson that any of those positions can be separatist; in other words, being a 1 or a 4 does not necessarily make one inherently more separatist than the others.

For example, some 3s are vigilant not to recommend resources by 4s or associate with 4s (e.g., by intentionally not speaking together at conferences) while simultaneously recommending resources by 1s and 2s and closely associating with 1s and 2s. I think that reflects a common tendency to “punch right and coddle left”—to care more about what people to your left think about you and to label anyone to your right as a “fundamentalist.”[60] (I don’t mean to pick on the 3s. In DeYoung’s taxonomy, I’m about a 3 myself! But I’m more sympathetic to 4s than 1s and 2s.)

Speaking of fundamentalism, it is ironic that many left-leaning people who despise fundamentalism participate in cancel culture more zealously than fundamentalists practice second-degree separation. John Woodbridge explains what second-degree separation is:

Second-degree separation means that if you find someone whom you think is theologically or ethically compromised, you must separate from that person [e.g., don’t have Christian partnership with a theological liberal], as well as from other people who have not separated from the first individual [e.g., Billy Graham]. These post-1957 fundamentalists separated from evangelical Christians who accepted the principle of cooperative evangelism [particularly Billy Graham’s method of platforming Roman Catholics and theological liberals in his evangelistic meetings and then giving those leaders information cards filled out by converts], which vexed fundamentalists.[61]

Cancel culture today is worse than hyper-fundamentalism.[62]

5. Jonathan Leeman on Authority and Deconstruction[63]

Jonathan Leeman is an elder of Cheverly Baptist Church in suburban Washington, D.C. and editorial director for 9Marks.

It has become increasingly common for people to have this mindset toward authorities: “If you are in a position of power and if you disagree with me in a way I don’t like, then you are abusive and domineering.” Consequently, others are rightly concerned that “abuse is becoming a totalizing category and that even the accusation of abuse takes down everyone and everything in its path.”[64]

Leeman argues that God designed authority as a gift to bless others (see 2 Sam 23:3–4). But sinners can misuse authority in a way that does not bless but destroys (e.g., Pharaoh oppressed the Israelites). Authority itself is not sinful. But it is dangerous when sinners misuse it.

Leeman distinguishes between the “authority to command” and the “authority of counsel.”[65] The authority to command is the right to enforce what you say, and the authority of counsel does not have that right but must rely on the persuasive power of the truth. Those who have the authority to command include parents (disciplining young children with the rod), the government (punishing lawbreakers, including executing with the sword), and the whole church (excommunicating by using the keys of the kingdom). The relationship between pastors and other church members is not like a parent and young children but more like a parent with adult children. Pastors do not have the authority to command but the authority of counsel by shepherding (which includes preaching and teaching).

Anti-authority sentiments are in the cultural air, and some professing Christians are taking it to another level by deconstructing Christianity.[66] Leeman highlights three books (among others):[67]

[1] Jesus and John Wayne, by Kristen Kobes Du Mez, argues that white evangelicalism is characterized by patriarchy, toxic masculinity, authoritarianism, nationalism, anti-gay sentiment, Islamophobia and indifference to Black people’s lives and rights.[68]

[2] The Making of Biblical Womanhood, by Beth Allison Barr, argues that the teaching of female subordination is a historical construct rather than the “clear biblical teaching” her opponents claim that it is.[69]

[3] The Color of Compromise, by Jemar Tisby, traces the long history of how white racism and evangelical Christianity have been fully intertwined in U.S. history, and how every effort to challenge white supremacism has been opposed—theologically, politically, morally—by white evangelicals.[70]

The critiques that these books offer are not exegetical and theological, but historical, sociological, personal, and emotional. Leeman warns against making your story more authoritative than the Bible.[71]


These ten resources (five by non-Christians and five by Christians) have helped me make sense of our current culture and make sense of how Christians are responding to it—particularly churches and Christian schools and other institutions in conservative evangelicalism.

More importantly, these resources have helped me in this complicated world to be discerning as I endeavor to hate what is evil and to love what is good. God describes “the mature” as “those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14). Maturing in our “powers of discernment” requires training. By God’s grace I want to be discerning so that I can better obey these commands from God:

  • “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2).
  • “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (Rom 12:9).
  • “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15a).[72]

One final note: As helpful as the above resources are, I don’t want to imply that you need to read them (and others like them) to be a faithful Christian. The most helpful resource by far is the Bible.

There is nothing new under the sun. You need to be saturated with the Bible for other resources to be helpful. You don’t need to be an expert in every new shade of doctrinal deviation, but you should be able to discern what is false if you know and love what is true. The Bible must be your bedrock underneath all other resources, the lens through which you view reality and put this complicated world in focus, the truth that identifies falsehood.

The Bible is the only book that is God-breathed, entirely true, our final authority, sufficient, necessary, and powerful. It’s the only “must read” book. It’s a book that we must believe, love, submit to and obey, be grateful for, read humbly, read carefully and prayerfully, and read routinely.[73]

Andrew David Naselli (Ph.D.) is associate professor of systematic theology and New Testament for Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis and one of the pastors of Bethlehem Baptist Church.

[1] Worldliness is “that system of values, in any given age, which has at its center our fallen human perspective, which displaces God and his truth from the world, and which makes sin look normal and righteousness seem strange. It thus gives great plausibility to what is morally wrong and, for that reason, makes what is wrong seem normal.” David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 4.

[2] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 866. Cf. Andrew David Naselli, “Do Not Love the World: Breaking the Evil Enchantment of Worldliness (A Sermon on 1 John 2:15–17),” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 22.1 (2018): 111–25.

[3] For what it is worth, here are some ways I attempt to keep up with the news day-to-day: (1) I listen to two podcasts on weekday mornings: “The World and Everything in It” (the same organization as WORLD magazine) and “The Briefing” by Al Mohler. (2) I read the headlines and some stories from various news organizations. Those include The Babylon Bee and Not the Bee. The first is satire, and the second is news; but sometimes it is hard to distinguish the two! (3) I listen to reasonable voices online such as Megan Basham, Voddie Baucham, Kevin Bauder, Denny Burk, Abigail Dodds, Dave Doran, Mark Dever, Kevin DeYoung, Phil Johnson, Jonathan Leeman, John MacArthur, Al Mohler, John Piper, Joe Rigney, David Schrock, Neil Shenvi, Colin Smothers, Owen Strachan, Justin Taylor, Carl Trueman, Andrew Walker, and Doug Wilson. I gratefully learn from them, even while they don’t always share the same convictions and instincts. (They are mostly 3s and 4s in Kevin DeYoung’s taxonomy—see below.) (4) I correspond confidentially with trusted and courageous friends. Face-to-face conversations, email exchanges, and text-message threads are far better than public exchanges on social media. (5) I intentionally do not watch the news since what drives that content and delivery is what gets higher ratings: anger, fear, and salaciousness.

[4] E.g., Joe Carter, “The FAQs: What Christians Should Know about QAnon,” The Gospel Coalition, 20 May 2020,

[5] Kevin DeYoung, “What to Do with Christian Nationalism,” WORLD Opinions, 18 November 2021, That is why my fellow Bethlehem Baptist Church elders recently stated, “We reject any attempt to fuse together one’s national/political identity with one’s Christian identity in a way that equates or conflates allegiance to country with allegiance to God.” Bethlehem Baptist Church Elders, “Ethnic Harmony Affirmations and Denials,” 6 February 2021,

[6] George Yancey, “Who’s More Political: Progressive or Conservative Christians?,” The Gospel Coalition, 29 April 2021, See George A. Yancey and Ashlee Quosigk, One Faith No Longer: The Transformation of Christianity in Red and Blue America (New York: New York University Press, 2021).

[7] I originally prepared this article as a presentation for the Young Adult Ministry (ages 18–29) of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Mounds Views, Minnesota, on June 29, 2021.

[8] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin, 2018). See also Neil Shenvi, “Villains, Victims, and Visionaries: Three Books for Understanding Our Culture,” Neil Shenvi—Apologetics, 1 June 2021,

[9] Lukianoff and Haidt, Coddling of the American Mind, 25–26 (bold emphasis added).

[10] Nick Haslam, “Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology,” Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory 27 (2016): 1–17.

[11] We should all oppose abuse if that refers to the biblical category oppression—that is, sinfully treating someone in a cruel and violent way. For example, Pharaoh oppresses God’s people at the beginning of Exodus (Exod 1:12; 3:9). My concern is that trauma and abuse have become what I call “Gumby” words—words that people can stretch to encompass so many circumstances that the words become unhelpfully flexible, vague, and subjective.

[12] Lukianoff and Haidt, Coddling of the American Mind, 202 (bold emphasis added).

[13] Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars(Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). See also Shenvi, “Villains, Victims, and Visionaries.”

[14] Campbell and Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, 3.

[15] Ibid., 7.

[16] Ibid., 11.

[17] Ibid., 16.

[18] Ibid., 87–88.

[19] Ibid., 40 (pp. 40–65 unpack this).

[20] Ibid., 105–34.

[21] Ibid., 167–68. Cf. Rosaria Butterfield, “Intersectionality and the Church,” Tabletalk, 1 March 2020,

[22] Campbell and Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, 225.

[23] Cf. Akos Balogh, “Beware the Dangers of a Victim Mentality,” The Gospel Coalition | Australia, 8 December 2020, Even The New Yorker finds “the trauma plot” tiring: Parul Sehgal, “The Case against the Trauma Plot,” The New Yorker, 27 December 2021,

[24] Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Identity, Morality (New York: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019). See also the review by Neil Shenvi, 23 May 2020,

[25] Cf. Kevin DeYoung, “We Live in Confusing Times: The Progressives Can’t Keep Their Story Straight on Sex and Gender,” WORLD Opinions, 22 February 2022,

[26] Murray, The Madness of Crowds, 20.

[27] Ibid., 64.

[28] Ibid., 121, 173.

[29] Ibid., 210.

[30] Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody (Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2020). See also Shenvi, “Villains, Victims, and Visionaries.” Shenvi also reviewed Cynical Theories for Themelios in April 2021, See also the review by Tim Challies, 26 August 2020,

[31] Pluckrose and Lindsay, Cynical Theories, 128.

[32] Ibid., 183.

[33] Ibid., 111; cf. 133–34.

[34] Ibid., 210–11.

[35] See Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard to Talk to White People about Racism (Boston, MA: Beacon, 2018); Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: Random House, 2019).

[36] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, ed. Margaret M. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal, 2nd ed. (New York: Church, 2017). Cf. this 75-page PDF: Alastair J. Roberts, Self and Leadership: A Summary of and Engagement with Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve, 2016,

[37] E.g., “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast by Mike Cosper for Christianity Today, June 21–December 4, 2021, Cf. Brian J. Tabb, “What Makes a ‘Good’ Church? Reflections on A Church Called Tov,” Them 46 (2021): 483–93.

[38] See the section “Joe Rigney on Untethered Empathy” below.

[39] Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 19.

[40] “Neil Shenvi—Apologetics,”

[41] Neil Shenvi, “Social Justice, Critical Theory, and Christianity: Are They Compatible?—Part 2,” Neil Shenvi—Apologetics, 5 January 2020,

[42] This table is from Özlem Sensoy and Robin J. DiAngelo, Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, 2nd ed., Multicultural Education Series (New York: Teachers College, 2017), 64.

[43] That is, males who identify as men. Cisgender means “denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex” (New Oxford American Dictionary).

[44] For Shenvi’s book reviews, see For a sampling of his articles, see “Intro to Critical Theory,” 20 March 2019,; “An Antiracism Glossary,” 5 September 2018,; “Social Justice, Critical Theory, and Christianity: Are They Compatible?,” 5 January 2020,

[45] See Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer, Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement (Merrillville, IN: Ratio Christi, 2019); Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer, “Gender, Intersectionality, and Critical Theory,” Eikon: A Journal for Biblical Anthropology 1.2 (2019): 75–81; Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer, “Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement,” Journal of Christian Legal Thought 10.1 (2020): 10–13; Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer, “Do Whites Need Corporate Repentance for Historical Racial Sins?,” Neil Shenvi—Apologetics, 5 August 2020,; Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer, “Facing Woke Religion, the Gospel Is Still Good News,” The American Conservative, 4 May 2021,

[46] Thaddeus J. Williams, Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask about Social Justice(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020). See the review by Neil Shenvi, 8 April 2021, This is the most winsome book I am aware of to share with someone who tends to be sympathetic with “wokeness.” See also Thaddeus Williams, “Is Critical Race Theory a Helpful Tool? Or Is It a Broken Ideology That Glosses Over True Injustices?” WORLD Opinions, 22 March 2022,

[47] Voddie Baucham, Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe (Washington, D.C.: Salem, 2021). Baucham is courageous and valiant for truth, even if that means disappointing friends and losing elements of his platform. And his personal story is so powerful: a black American man who descended from African slaves, grows up with a non-Christian single mother in gang-infested Los Angeles, becomes a Christian in college, studies sociology and theology, earns a master’s degree and doctoral degree, adopts seven (!) black children, pastors predominantly black churches in Texas and then predominantly white churches in Texas and then moves to Zambia, etc. Baucham is a Thomas Sowell or Clarence Thomas of conservative evangelicalism.

It is helpful to distinguish between those who (1) are knowing advocates of Critical Social Justice, (2) are sympathetic to it, or (3) have unwillingly taken on aspects of it. There is a messy middle here. Many good people are either not well-informed or misinformed on Critical Theory, and then they get out over their skis in public forums. In this book Baucham targets that first group and flags the second and third. It is wise to show some latitude for those who are still working these things out in their own contexts, even as we are seeing the “camps” progressively gain clarity on these issues. Baucham helps us do that, though I disagree with how he negatively portrays some faithful and reasonable brothers such as Jonathan Leeman and John Piper.

[48] Owen Strachan, Christianity and Wokeness: How the Social Justice Movement Is Hijacking the Gospel (Washington, D.C.: Salem, 2021). This book is similar to Voddie Baucham’s, but it does not call out specific conservative evangelicals the way Baucham’s book does.

[49] Andrew David Naselli, “What the Bible Teaches about Ethnic Harmony,” Midwestern Journal of Theology 19.2 (2020): 14–57. See also Kevin DeYoung, Faith Seeking Understanding: Thinking Theologically about Racial Tensions (Matthews, NC: The Gospel Coalition, 2020),

[50] See Andrew David Naselli, “How Empathy Can Be Sinful,” Andy Naselli, 2 May 2020,

[51] This contrast is similar to what Jordan Peterson calls “genuine empathy” (good) and “counterproductive sentimentality” (harmful). Jordan Peterson, “Life at the Bottom | Theodore Dalrymple,” Jordan B. Peterson Podcast, Season 4: Episode 23, 20 May 2021,

[52] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: A Dream (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 131–32.

[53] Joe Rigney, “Killing Them Softly: Compassion That Warms Satan’s Heart,” Desiring God, 24 May 2019,; Joe Rigney, “The Enticing Sin of Empathy: How Satan Corrupts through Compassion,” Desiring God, 31 May 2019,; Joe Rigney, “Dangerous Compassion: How to Make Any Love a Demon,” Desiring God, 18 January 2020,; Joe Rigney, “Do You Feel My Pain? Empathy, Sympathy, and Dangerous Virtues,” Desiring God, 2 May 2020,; Joe Rigney, “Where Do We Disagree? Golden Rule Reading and the Call for Empathy,” Desiring God, 12 April 2021,; Joe Rigney, “On Empathy, Once More: A Response to Critics (Part 1),” Medium, 14 October 2021,; Joe Rigney, “On Empathy, Once More: A Response to Critics (Part 2),” Medium, 14 October 2021,

[54] Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020); Carl R. Trueman, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022). Rise and Triumph is 425 pages; Strange New World abridges the first book to 204 pages. See also reviews of the unabridged book by Neil Shenvi, 11 January 2021,; Andrew Walker, 18 November 2020,; and Tim Challies, 18 November 2020,

[55] Trueman, Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 36.

[56] Cf. Carl R. Trueman, “Evangelicals and Race Theory,” First Things, February 2021,; Carl R. Trueman, “How Expressive Individualism Threatens Civil Society,” Backgrounder 3615 (2021): 1–14. See also the 9Marks Journal for March 2022 on “Expressive Individualism in the Church” — an issue devoted to showing how Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is so helpful and relevant for pastors and churches (

[57] Kevin DeYoung, “Why Reformed Evangelicalism Has Splintered: Four Approaches to Race, Politics, and Gender,” The Gospel Coalition, 9 March 2021,

[58] It is remarkable how so many seemingly unrelated issues line up on this scale. It reminds me of Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, 2nd ed. (New York: Basic, 2007). See Justin Taylor’s excerpts and summary: “A Conflict of Visions: or, Why Can’t We All Get Along?,” The Gospel Coalition, 9 February 2012,

[59] Douglas Wilson, “Kevin DeYoung and the Taxonomy of Conflict,” Blog and Mablog, 21 June 2021,

[60] On fundamentalism, cf. Andrew David Naselli and Collin Hansen, eds., Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). Here is one of my conclusions: “Few people consider themselves extreme. People commonly frame issues in a reductionistic way slanted in favor of their argument: (1) there are twits on the left and (2) wackos on the right, but (3) unlike those extremes, there’s my reasonable middle way. Lyrics from a 1973 Stealers Wheel song come to mind: ‘Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.’ And when defending your view on the spectrum of evangelicalism, there will always be someone to both the left and right of you.” Andrew David Naselli, “Conclusion,” in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, ed. Andrew David Naselli and Collin Hansen, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 215.

[61] John D. Woodbridge, “The ‘Fundamentalist’ Label: An Interview with John Woodbridge,” Trinity Magazine (2009): 9. PDF at

[62] On hyper-fundamentalism, see Kevin T. Bauder, “Fundamentalism,” in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, ed. Andrew David Naselli and Collin Hansen, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 43–45.

[63] Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2016), 131–52; Jonathan Leeman, “The Blessing of (Good) Authority: Lessons from a King’s Final Words (2 Sam. 23:3–4),” The Gospel Coalition, 27 September 2020,; Jonathan Leeman, “Defending Sound Doctrine against the Deconstruction of American Evangelicalism,” 9Marks Journal (2021): 7–33; Jonathan Leeman, “An Ecclesiological Take on ‘The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,’” 9Marks, 14 March 2022, This work is culminating in a forthcoming book: Jonathan Leeman, Authority: How Good Leadership Protects the Vulnerable, Makes Society Flourish, and Saves the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, forthcoming in 2023).

[64] Kevin DeYoung, “Toward a Better Discussion about Abuse,” The Gospel Coalition, 24 January 2022,

[65] Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members, 138, 140. See also the fourth lesson in Leeman, “An Ecclesiological Take on ‘The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.’”

[66] See also Neil Shenvi, “Sociology as Theology: The Deconstruction of Power in (Post)Evangelical Scholarship,” Eikon: A Journal for Biblical Anthropology 3.2 (2021): 46–51; Alisa Childers, “Why We Should Not Redeem ‘Deconstruction,’” The Gospel Coalition, 18 February 2022,

[67] Leeman, “Defending Sound Doctrine,” 9.

[68] For reviews, see Neil Shenvi, “Cowboy Christianity: A Short Review of Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne,” Shenvi Apologetics (March 15, 2021),; Anne Kennedy “Jesus and John Wayne: A Fair Portrait of Evangelicalism?” (April 5, 2021),; Stephen Wolfe, “Upper-Class Christianity,” First Things (August 2021),; John D. Wisley, “Jesus and John Wayne: A Review,” Ad Fontes Journal (February 9, 2022),; and Michael Young, “Jesus and John Wayne Among the Deplorables,” American Reformer (March 11, 2022), See also Denny Burk, “Crucial Questions with Kristin Kobes Du Mez,” (November 29, 2021),

[69] For reviews, see Kevin DeYoung, “The Making of Biblical Womanhood: A Review” The Gospel Coalition (July 2021),; Neil Shenvi, “Unmaking the Patriarchy: A Brief Review of Barr’s Making of Biblical Womanhood” Shenvi Apologetics (November 9, 2021),; Timothy E. Miller, “The Making of Biblical Womanhood” JBTW 2/1 (Fall 2021),; and Jordan Steffaniak, “The Making of Biblical Womanhood,” The London Lyceum (December 20, 2021), (20 December 2021).

[70] For reviews, see Samuel Sey, “The Color of Compromise,” Slow to Write (January 22, 2019),; Daniel K. Williams, “The Color of Compromise,” The Gospel Coalition (January 23, 2019),; S. Donald Fortson III, “The Color of Incomplete History,” Reformed Faith & Practice: The Journal of Reformed Theological Seminary 4/1 (May 2019),; Neil Shenvi, “Compromised? A Long Review of Tisby’s Color of Compromise,” Shenvi Apologetics (December 4, 2019),

[71] Similarly, we must beware of giving our own opinions unwarranted authority. Trevin Wax recounts, “Not long ago, I sat down with a professor I’ve long admired, a man who has trained future pastors and church leaders for decades. Curious to get his take on culture shifts and the next generation, I asked him how an incoming class of 20-somethings today differed from 15 or 20 years ago. What’s the difference between older millennials preparing for ministry (my generation) and Gen Z? I asked him. He paused for a moment and then offered three general impressions. Pornography, gender confusion, and the weight given to one’s opinion. . . . The third difference is one I attribute to the rise and influence of social media. Many young people today have grown up in an environment where broadcasting their opinions is expected. Any one person’s opinion carries as much weight or validity as another’s. The classroom gets interesting when so many students enter the room already convinced their assumptions regarding theology, preaching, ministry practice, and the like are correct, chafing against the expectation they’d accept an expert’s authority, no matter how time-tested or experienced the person in authority might be. Yes, everyone is entitled to an opinion, but social media has distorted the weight we assign these viewpoints so that nearly everyone assumes their perspective is just as valid as someone else’s. This is a sign of the ‘death of expertise.’” Trevin Wax, “Gen Z Enters the Ministry: 3 Big Challenges,” The Gospel Coalition, 10 March 2022,

[72] Cf. Naselli, “Do Not Love the World.”

[73] Cf. Andrew David Naselli, “What Is the Bible, and How Should We Treat It?,” a sermon preached to Bethlehem Baptist Church in Mounds View, MN, January 10, 2021,

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