A Decadal Kind of Change

Rethinking this site — and my own vocations — as the 2010s give way to the 2020s.

Assumed Audience: others reflecting on the decade change, and especially other Christians thinking about their callings.

The decade behind me was a decade of starting, of foundations.1 I graduated college and got married in mid-2009. The 2010s map pretty close to perfectly to my first decade fully into the world of adulthood. Throughout those years, I became a father, worked 5 different jobs, started and finished an M. Div., and lived in 3 different states. I began my marriage, my career, my family, and my vocation.

In the decade ahead, I’m ready to build on the foundations I set.

I spent the 2010s and all of my 20s just taking things as they came. I changed jobs when I had had enough of my old job. The last job I took in my 20s, my goal was nothing more than simply to get paid to build web user interfaces in JavaScript. I went to seminary with some hopes and ideas of where we’d end up when I finished, but worked through those years seeing where my interests took me and came out the other side M. Div. in hand and no idea what I wanted to do with it.

That approach was good and fine in its way. I learned a lot about myself — my abilities and passions, my strengths and my weaknesses. I’m not a novice any more. I don’t regret my 20s be years of hard-working-drifting, foundation-laying, start-making. That’s what they needed to be. But it’s not what the decade ahead should be.

At the end of the 2020s, I will be in my early 40s, a third of the way through my adult life, and I hope that I will have done some things, made some differences that matter then.

My website, and my public person in general, have been heavy on technical concerns and light on theological work for the past few years. There were a lot of reasons for this, not least among them that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to accomplish by thinking specifically theologically in public. I knew what I thought about many things. But I did not know what I wanted to say, or why, or to whom.

That has changed over the last few months. The first hint of the shift came during my preparation for teaching a class at church on Christology. I felt my passion for theological thinking come alive again. The experience of teaching the class was the second shift. Though I came out of each Sunday exhausted, I came out exhilarated too. I had the sense: I was made for this. I absolutely love teaching, and I’m good at it.

The final piece came in the past few weeks. A few very public conversations about the relationship between white evangelicals and President Trump crystallized for me how profoundly untaught and mistaught many of my fellow evangelicals have been. We have come to a time when prominent Christian leaders can say absurd things — like the idea that any and all criticism of this president is demonic — and those men still be taken seriously. (This claim, to be clear, would be absurd for any leader. None of us is above criticism!) But this should not be a surprise. People are hungry for truth, and the voices speaking at a popular level in an authoritative way for the last several decades have been the sort to lead the churhc into just this sort of folly. The majority of the voices speaking to the white evangelical public have ranged from well-intended-but-ignorant to power-hungry fools.

I wrote yesterday in the final 2019 issue of Across the Sundering Seas:

One of the ways we can serve each other in the internet era is by just shutting up. That goes for books, the subject of our discussion a few years ago. It also goes for newsletters and blogs, though.

Yet — and here’s the rub — if those of us most careful and most thoughtful about these things all take that tack… we leave the floor to the least careful and least thoughtful about these things. How much of the dysfunction among white evangelical Christians on politics is a function of the absence of good leaders and sound teaching? To what extent are we where we are today because the voices my brothers and sisters listen to are so often explicitly or implicitly not only a- but even anti-theological, not only a- but anti-historical, not only an- but anti-intellectual? To what extent, therefore, do those of us with platforms (however small) and education (however insufficient it feels for the task) and gifts (however meager) have a responsibility to speak, to provide a better alternative to the nonsense floating around?

It is that responsibility which I feel, and it weighs heavily on me. I know what I want my public theological work both on this site specifically and when working in public generally to be: a better voice, helping people think in a more genuinely Christ-like way.

The TypeScript posts aren’t going anywhere; nor will the reflections on note-taking. That kind of writing will always have its place on this site. But it will be joined in the years ahead on this site by my attempts to help people think more carefully, more clearly, and especially more Christianly about all sorts of things: technology, sex, politics, art, community, family, you name it.

I am not an expert in all these things and I don’t have a hope of becoming one. I do, however, have a talent for taking complex or difficult subjects and explaining them in ways that connect with people. If I don’t use that ability and put it to work for the people of God, I am letting the ignorant and foolish voices carry the day. I cannot by myself change these dynamics, of course, but I am also not responsible to do so. I am responsible to use my gifts to the best of my abilities and to use what influence I have in the spheres I inhabit.

Sometimes that will mean translating for a non-Christian audience (many of you reading this fit that bill!).2 More often, it will mean taking the best work available on a subject — whether it’s millennia old or brand new academic writing — and helping other Christians who are not so scholarly-mind get it.

You can expect to see a lot more assumed audiences of evangelical Christians” and confessional Presbyterians” and the like. You may also occasionally see non-Christians trying to make sense of or similar. Take those markers seriously: I do. If I write on gender and sexuality for other people who believe the Bible is true, I’m going to risk offending readers who don’t. If I aim to explain the history of certain follies to which conservative evangelicals are tempted to non-evangelicals, the folks so tempted are likely to bristle. I can’t help that, and I’m willing to deal with it when people hate-read me anyway — but please, please take me seriously when I give you the warning that a given post isn’t addressing you. It’s the only way we have a chance of tackling these kinds of hard subjects in public.

The change of decades is a good time for this kind of consideration. Especially for others of you who are writers and thinkers-in-public, I strongly encourage you to take the time to reflect: what is the project of your writing? In preparing this post, in wondering whether I should write it at all, I realized I have never had a good answer to that question — not for individual blog posts, and not for the site as a whole.

I’m still formulating my answer, and in the broadest sense it’s something like teaching, encouraging, and occasionally challenging people.” That means that posts about how to use TypeScript effectively can fit the bill. It also means, though, that a post needs to actually teach or encourage or challenge the reader. A lot of the things I have posted can and should go in my personal notes instead. If an idea can’t answer the question: who is this for and what do I hope they take away?” then it stays private.

This blog will be better, and I will be better, as a result of this shift. It will stretch me and pull me out of my comfort zone. But I also hope that it will result in my making a little dent in the world. If the 2010s were the decade of foundation-laying, this is a decade where I am ready to build things that matter on those foundations. That goes for work — and yes, I have some ideas what that may look like — but far more importantly, it goes for my calling as a Christian thinker and teacher.3

Lord willing, this decade I will write not only get rewrite into the world, not only transform how JavaScript is written at LinkedIn and the Ember community, but also teach faithfully and effectively in my church and write essays that change people’s minds on things that matter. I have no idea how effective I’ll be in these things — not for any of them. I do know I want to be faithful in them, no matter what.

To all of you reading, I encourage you again: take the time to think about this decade. Think about the kind of decade it should be for you. Maybe re-think some of what you have grown comfortable with: the things you do by habit (because they’re easy), and the things you don’t do (because they’re hard) but should. Consider whether and how you might lean into the way God made you for the love of those around you.

  1. I’m aware that there’s debate about the nature of decades. In practice, I think the answer is obvious: the idea that the 2020s would not include 2020 but would include 2030 is just kind of dumb. Decades are not centuries. In any case, I’m a programmer: I’m very comfortable with 0-indexed ranges. ↩︎

  2. Almost a year ago, I read a fabulous essay, Futures for Public Theology. In it the authors trace out what exactly they understand public theology” to be — and in so doing they describe a great deal of what I understand my own work to be when I am addressing non-Christians:

    public theology” designates any attempt to use some particular religious perspective to interpret and make judgments about a common political or cultural situation, and simultaneously to communicate that interpretation and those judgments to an audience that reaches beyond one’s own religious community. It uses the symbols, categories, themes and narratives that are ingredient to and distinctive of a discrete perspective. It does so in the hope that it might elucidate our common situation for a community composed of people with a diversity of views, and also elucidates for those same people why and how one member of some religious tradition (or traditions) understands that situation as she or he does. This is theological reflection done in public that is also for the public.

    The whole thing is well worth your time. ↩︎

  3. More central still in my life are my role as husband and father, but the shape of goals and aims in that space is and must be very different. ↩︎