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The Holy Spirit is a Political Liability
On Thomas Achord, J.D. Hall, and why the church must always be the church.
For those who are unaware of the controversy involving Thomas Achord, you can get up to speed by reading both Alastair Roberts and Rod Dreher's summaries. If you have no desire to think any more than you have to about this dust up, I completely sympathize with you. Feel free to skip this newsletter.
I only want to make one brief point, and it's a point I've been coming back to a lot over the last four years or so. Part of the reason that today Thomas Achord's life has fallen apart is that his anonymous Twitter account was embedded in a larger aesthetic of conservative Christian culture that not only turned a blind eye toward what he said about blacks, women, etc., but celebrated it. Why did some celebrate these awful posts? Surely, part of the answer could be that some are simply deeply immoral, prejudiced people. But I don't think that's the whole answer. I think another part of the answer is that, for a certain kind of young, male, politically conscious Protestant, these types of sentiments feel especially powerful. Their potential to shock and shame "the elites" makes them appealing. And, while Stephen Wolfe (the author of The Case for Christian Nationalism) is not responsible for what his podcast co-author did in a shadow online life, this controversy seems to circumscribe an entire moment in evangelical culture.
This moment is exemplified not just by rancid bigotry but also a posture of unceasing combativeness and pugilism. It's exemplified by an instinctive aversion to tenderheartedness, forgiveness, and gentleness. It's exemplified by a way of talking about and doing politics that focuses almost myopically on winning: defeating the Left, pushing them out of the cultural center, and exiling any Christians who aren't willing to do whatever it takes to achieve this. People who criticize this attitude are routinely accused of covert liberalism; they are "female-adjacent," "soyboys" who crave Big Eva approval. This is the soil in which Achord's self-described cynicism and spiritual darkness seemed to flourish so well.
Achord's story is not unique. Earlier this year I read the decline and fall narrative of J.D. Hall, a troll's troll who tormented Southern Baptists whom he deemed insufficiently conservative. Hall was a pastor who seemed to devour sheep online. He made gross insults. By every measure, Hall falls under the curse of 1 John 4:20. But Hall was good at what he did. He was good at making people he disliked very angry. And in a certain light, Hall was strong, courageous, bold, and assertive. That's why nobody in his life intervened before he was eventually sued, defrocked, addicted, and arrested. That Hall physically threatened his wife was, like Achord's Twitter account, hidden from view. But the signs were there. They were legible. But nobody except Hall (and Achord's) opponents seemed willing to read them out loud.
Right now in evangelicalism there is a movement afoot that would like the church to become more like the world in how it tries to wage culture war. We need to Tweet like those cultural despisers whose mockery and sarcasm always seem to go viral. We need to viciously attack the alleged compromisers within our ranks, just like the world's institutions and parties chuck out the weak links. We need to see our enemies with the contempt with which they see us. We need to feel toward them what (we believe) they feel toward us. Because the alternative is losing.
Let me suggest to you, dear reader, that the reason Halls and Achords and Jerry Fallwell, Jrs. happen and will keep happening is that the deck is stacked. The church is not a system that can be tweaked to go along with the times. It's the body of a living man: Christ Jesus, whose Holy Spirit is the one and only source of Christian power in this world. And this Holy Spirit is a political liability. He is not a skilled wordsmith of put-downs. He is not a ruthless social media assassin. He is not "based." He is the Spirit of a crucified Savior, a King whose throne was a cross. Christianity is cruciform-shaped. It cannot be anything else. And the impulse we feel arise within us to try to contort that cruciform shape, to make it more effective, more viral, more powerful in a mass media age, is an impulse that can only end in disaster.
This does not abandon us to retreat from culture, to surrender the earth to thugs. It does not mean we have to accept that we simply cannot win. It means the opposite: accepting that we have already won. When Christ emerged from that tomb, all the gender insanity, all the religious persecution, all the abandonment of first principles in the universe were given a death sentence. Christ himself is truth. Truth was killed, then got back up, and will never die again. This is not just piety. It’s a reality that must go down deep in our methods, our speech, our attitudes. We don’t have the option of not being cross-shaped. And when we try to pretend like we do, the dissonance will manifest itself in spiritually sick ways. The only way to help people like Hall and Achord is to remind them of the gospel. We can’t do this if we ourselves have already forgotten it.