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My Favorite Paragraphs of the Year
Some of the best and most memorable things I read this year.
One of my favorite quotes from John Piper is, “Books don’t change people, but paragraphs do.” That’s probably overstatement, but it gets to something important. The ideas and images that really shape us are usually short and memorable. They work their way into our minds and attitudes precisely because we find ourselves turning them over again and again. The paragraph is the place where lights turn on and arguments are won or lost. A great paragraph that is preserved in memory can redeem an otherwise questionable book. Don’t underestimate the power of the lowly paragraph!
In that spirit, I thought it might be enjoyable to recount some of my favorite paragraphs of the year. You’ll notice that while many of these are from 2022, some are not. This list is best understood as some of the best paragraphs I read this year. Here’s my advice. Don’t try to read everything on this list. Instead, scan the paragraphs until you find one that really seems to grab you, then go read the source from where that paragraph is taken.
Ryan Grim. “Elephant in the Zoom: Meltdowns Have Brought Progressive Advocacy Groups to a Standstill at a Critical Moment in World History,” The Intercept
This frequently astonishing essay captures the transformative shifts going on among Gen-Z, specificially at how their political intuitions are making institutional solidarity impossible.
For years, recruiting young people into the movement felt like a win-win, he said: new energy for the movement and the chance to give a person a lease on a newly liberated life, dedicated to the pursuit of justice. But that’s no longer the case. “I got to a point like three years ago where I had a crisis of faith, like, I don’t even know, most of these spaces on the left are just not — they’re not healthy. Like all these people are just not — they’re not doing well,” he said. “The dynamic, the toxic dynamic of whatever you want to call it — callout culture, cancel culture, whatever — is creating this really intense thing, and no one is able to acknowledge it, no one’s able to talk about it, no one’s able to say how bad it is.”
The environment has pushed expectations far beyond what workplaces previously offered to employees. “A lot of staff that work for me, they expect the organization to be all the things: a movement, OK, get out the vote, OK, healing, OK, take care of you when you’re sick, OK. It’s all the things,” said one executive director. “Can you get your love and healing at home, please? But I can’t say that, they would crucify me.”
Freddie DeBoer. “You Can’t Be Good Enough.”
Freddie is one of my favorite writers. His reflections on the fruitlessness and despair of cancel culture are among his most penetrating insights.
I am convinced that the recent spasm of enraged but directionless moralism within our aspirational classes is connected to some greater lack of meaning. They live lives that are not the ones they imagined and they grind for goals they can’t define and don’t particular want to achieve. They have grown up into a chaos of meaning and are compelled by communal decree to ironize all values and ridicule all sincerity. All they can cling to now is their desperate sense that everything is wrong and that someone, somewhere, must pay. What they never seem to grasp is that they are the ones they are most angry with, their own social culture the poisoned tree that bears the fruit that burns them inside. We have met the enemy and he is us, and, well….
John Kleinig. Wonderfully Made: A Protestant Theology of the Body. (Lexham: 2021)
This is a wonderful book: simply written, yet thorough and profound. An essential summary of Protestant theology that is also conversant with contemporary culture.
The traditional notion of identity is much more helpful and much more fruitful, because it is based on what is given and yet open in orientation. In this view, we do not have a single identity but have many different layers of identity, which do not exclude each other but make for personal uniqueness and social enrich-ment. Each layer of identity shows a different, characteristic aspect of a person. Take my passport as an example. It not only identifies me by the personal names that my parents gave me and by the surname I inherited from my father, but also by my date and place of birth, as well as my nationality. It locates me in that physical context. Other identifications include my parentage, my sex, and my marital status. All of these are inherited apart from my marital status, which was a matter of choice. Besides these, there are also many other layers of identity, such as my ethnicity, my religious affiliation, and my occupation. Taken together, this rich mix makes me the unique, rather odd person that I am. None of these excludes any other identity or all of them.
A problem has arisen for us because many people now seem to seek their identity in only one aspect of themselves and reject other people who have a different identity or one that seems to negate theirs. This is where the biblical teaching on our common creation in God's image is so true and helpful. Underneath the other layers of identity, we all share the same common human identity as people who have been made in God's image. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all share the same humanity, an innate identity that is granted in our conception that cannot be taken away from us. No one, or nothing, can unperson us and cancel our human identity. That foundational identity does not threaten the other layers of identity; instead, it confirms them all by giving each its proper due in its proper place in the hierarchy of identity. So I maintain most passionately that we, at present, need to acknowledge, affirm, and build on the common identity that we have with all other people as we negotiate the antagonisms of politics, the cross-currents of culture wars, and the conflicts of identity. We all have so much to gain from each other, and, most of all, from people who differ from us.
J.I. Packer and Thomas Howard. Christianity: The True Humanism. (Regent: 1985)
This nearly forty year old book is amazingly prescient. Packer and Howard write about the world in the mid 1980s as if they were looking at the 2020s.
Cynicism—first cousin of that death-dealing disease of the spirit which the medievals called sloth and acedia—may be described as the disposition to believe that truth-claims cannot ever be trusted; that virtue, however apparent, is never real; and that hopelessness is the only real wisdom that there is. Cynicism, as a state of mind, is the child of specific disappointments. When hopes and achievements, longings and realities, expectations and experiences have been out of sync with each other for a sufficient period of time, an individual's capacity to go on hoping, longing, and expecting gets eaten away. Then he will externalize his inner hurt—for hopelessness does hurt; make no mistake about that—by becoming a bitter critic of his more sanguine associates, in the confidence that his urge to debunk their hopes argues superior insight on his part rather than sickness of soul.
But cynicism really is a sickness, whether or not one recognizes it as such; it is a defense mechanism whereby one who has been disillusioned and hurt once too often tries to guard against ever being disillusioned and hurt again. Self-protective cynicism, with all its brash claims to "see through” idealism and hopefulness as so much immature naiveté, is in truth a form of spiritual blindness—a sour and festering inward condition that prompts apathetic refusal of, irritated resentment at, and aggressive hostility toward anything that sounds like a formula for fulfillment and joy put forward by anyone anywhere…if we have been right to claim that hope is essential for fully human living, then cynicism must be judged to have something intrinsically dehumanizing and anti-human about it.
Andy Crouch. The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World (Convergent: 2022).
One of the most convicting, most hopeful books on technology I’ve read in a long while.
And, of course, the soul is the plane of human existence that our technological age neglects most of all. Jesus asked whether it was worth gaining the whole world at the cost of losing one's soul. But in the era of superpowers, we have not only lost a great deal of our souls--we have lost much of the world as well. We are rarely overwhelmed by wind or rain or snow. We rarely see, let alone name, the stars. We have lost the sense that we are both at home and on a pilgrimage in the vast, mysterious cosmos, anchored in a rich reality beyond ourselves. We have lost our souls without even gaining the world.
So it is no wonder that the defining condition of our time is a sense of loneliness and alienation. For if human flourishing requires us to love with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, what happens when nothing in our lives develops those capacities? With what, exactly, will we love?
Byung-Chul Han. In the Swarm: Digital Prospects. (MIT: 2017).
German thinker Byung-Chul Han writes about Internet culture from a philosophical point of view. His short booklet offers an epistemological argument for why the Internet is the way it is.
Waves of outrage mobilize and bundle attention very efficiently. However, their fluidity and volatility make them unsuited to shaping public discourse or public space. They are too uncontrollable, incalculable, inconstant, ephemeral, and amorphous for that. They well up abruptly—and they dissipate just as soon. They are like smart mobs. They lack the stability, constancy, and continuity that are indispensable for civil exchange. Accordingly, they defy integration into a stable discursive context. Waves of outrage often occur in response to events of only meager social or political relevance.
Outrage society is scandal society. It lacks bearing—reserve and posture. The fractiousness, hysteria, and intractability that characterize waves of outrage do not admit tactful or matter-of-fact communication; they bar dialogue and discourse. Yet bearing, a measured stance, is what constitutes the civil sphere. By the same token, distance is necessary for this sphere to emerge. More still, waves of outrage evince little identification with the community as it stands. The outraged do not form a stable we who are displaying concern for society as a whole. Enraged citizens, even though they are citizens, do not demonstrate concern for the whole of the social body so much as for themselves. For this reason, outrage quickly dissipates.
Hartmut Rosa. The Uncontrollability of the World. (Polity: 2020).
Another German philosopher argues that one reason we don’t feel moved by the world is that we spend our lives trying to control it. We have exchanged meaning for power.
And in fact, taking a closer phenomenological look at the resonant relationships we have, we can see that not only experiences, but also the things we encounter must contain an element of uncontrollability. Long-form interviews in which people tell the story of their life are almost always structured around pivotal experiences of resonance that mark biographical turning points. These almost invariably take the form of an unexpected encounter: then I met this person, I read this book, I ended up joining this group, someone brought me to this place, and it changed my life. Being open to the unexpected - to what I awkwardly, metaphorically refer to here as "being called" also seems to be a prerequisite of smaller, more everyday experiences of resonance. It is precisely the uncontrollability of that first snowfall or of a sunset that evokes the intensity of the resonant experience potentially associated with it.
And this of course applies to every human encounter. Whether or not another person- be it a family member, a friend, a colleague, or a stranger--becomes involved in a dialogically or physically resonant relationship with me is something that I cannot control. The fact that the other person could say "no" or "not now" is a precondition of being able to resonate with them at all. We cannot resonate with someone who always tells us we are right, who always encourages or shares our opinions and fulfills our every wish and desire (she dream of the "love robot”).
Jake Meador. What Are Christians For? Life Together at the End of the World. (IVP: 2022)
Jake’s book is a concise, clear argument for a whole-person Christian ethic, which the church alone must reclaim independently of political parties.
The right way of understanding the sexual revolution is not as the triumph of human freedom over the controlling and inhuman moralizing of Christianity. Instead, it was a further step in securing the rights of each person to self-designate over and against the Christian vision-a Christian vision which, at its best, provided a safe context for sexual relationships while also providing an account of human flourishing that did not require any sexual experience at all. What citizens of the classical world learned, and what I expect many will discover in the years to come, is that the Christian account of sexuality is both more restrictive and more humane than the hedonistic account currently in favor.
Brian Mattson. “A Children’s Crusade.”
Brian Mattson reviews The Case for Christian Nationalism.
As for that admirably distilled paragraph, I observe that one of the most obvious and central concerns of the New Testament is precisely a “new principle of human relations.” It is a principle that brought no small amount of controversy, completely occupied the agenda at the very first church council, and continued to find stubborn resistance in the churches of Asia Minor, particularly in Ephesus and Galatia. Jews and Gentiles, separated for all previous ages, are now brought together into one household. One family. One body. One man. Those who continued to act on their “natural instincts” to love the familiar more than the foreign, who thought that grace does not “critique” or “subvert” their natural inclinations to love and prefer those nearest and most bound to them, were, Paul clearly says, opposed to “the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). So strong were these “natural” inclinations and so strong was the tribal peer pressure involved that even the Apostle Peter succumbed to it.
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. (Gal. 2:11-13).
Paul is not talking about mere ecclesiastical fellowship. Those with a dualistic cast of mind, as Wolfe most certainly has, might be tempted to think that this controversy was over “spiritual” or “heavenly” matters rather than the “earthly” or mundane—plenty more on that later. But this controversy is as mundane as it gets: Peter will not eat with the Gentiles, and certain Jews followed his example and together they formed a little clique full of familiar faces. A scene from an average high school cafeteria on any given day. And this “natural” inclination was contrary to the truth of the gospel.
This episode, recounted for us in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, does not appear in Stephen Wolfe’s book. Nor does Pentecost. Nor does the Jerusalem council. Not even the Tower of Babel warrants a mention. Key biblical texts dealing with questions of ethnicity and nations do not exist within the covers of The Case For Christian Nationalism. Stephen Wolfe has written a conclusory paragraph that appears to flatly contradict one of the central gospel themes of the New Testament directly related to his topic, and this raises at least two questions: how did we get here? And, more important, how might we avoid getting here?
Katherine Dee. “Corrections: Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads Marks a Cultural Turn.”
Katherine Dee reviews Jonathan Franzen’s counter-cultural novel Crossroads.
And the conversation only continued as the year marched on: women began to question the safety of hormonal birth control, proposing that maybe natural cycle tracking was the healthier alternative. Fertility, too, was a major consideration, as older millennial women wondered both in think pieces and on social media if they’d been led astray by the notion that women really can have it all. Many tragically concluded that they would have been happier as mothers, as opposed to career women; something that would have been viewed as retrograde or even unspeakable a year or two earlier.
Young women began to speak out on platforms like TikTok about being misled about the “glamor” of sex work, stripping, OnlyFans, and being a sugar baby, which had long been understood as edgy and unduly stigmatized at worst, and a backdoor to a more exciting, fulfilling life at best. Media personalities, reporters, and feminists heralded the end of the iconic 2010s “girl boss,” now recast as an unfair lie designed to imprison women in the same rat race that had done so much harm to men…
And while there’s no surefire way to track conversations happening on the ground, internet analytics tell a similar story to headlines. Search a keyword like “sex negativity” on a social listening tool like Awario, which tracks conversations happening on Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and blogs, and you’ll discover that mentions exploded by nearly 300 percent. If you do the same for negative-sentiment conversations around topics like “liberal feminism” or “girl boss feminism,” the numbers are even more staggering. So high, in fact, one wonders if they can be correct: they’re up by thousands of percentage points. A quick review of what, precisely, these conversations are, again, reveals that it’s not conservative religious populations, older generations, self-identified anti-feminists, or the intersection of all three speaking. It’s primarily women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four—of all races, religious backgrounds, and professions—who are fed up.
Considering the weight and ubiquity of these topics, it’s even more surprising that Crossroads, which confronts many of these issues head-on, received so little attention for its engagement with sexuality. Like so many of Franzen’s books, it was published at the perfect time—the book for its moment.
Perhaps the established gatekeepers of literary culture are still hesitant to question yesterday’s pieties. Or perhaps they didn’t make it to the end, and only took what they were able to glean from the first fifty to a hundred pages. It’s only by the end of the novel that the reader is truly able to appreciate what Franzen is saying about sexuality. Or perhaps the novel, especially one as long as Crossroads, has finally gone out of fashion, just as the values of the sexual revolution have.