Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Interview: Matthew Lee Anderson

There is no doubt that electronic media in the form of Internet communications is the ultimate revolution of life on earth. Ever since the first century AD, Christians in particular have been eager to use whatever medium readily available to make the Christian message public. Perhaps Paul the Apostle is our greatest example, meeting people in the marketplaces, institutions of higher learning, and the open air "chat room" of the Greek Areopagus. Today, our Areopagus is the blogosphere, webzines, and YouTube (and GodTube too maybe...maybe not).

The blogosphere in particular, as big and wide as it is, has made it possible for many bright people to contribute to the intellectual life of the thoughtful Christian. A few months ago, my friend Matthew Lee Anderson, organizer of the original GodBlogCon, graciously gave me a few precious moments of his time to let me peek into his literary forays. Amongst his online on goings are his blog, Mere Orthodoxy, a smattering of articles on popular Christian websites, and a chapter in the book, The New Media Frontier. So what is up with this guy, certainly a young man at 26, having so much to say?

LW: Blogging, particularly Christian blogging, has, as far as I have seen, really taken off in the last five years. There are numerous apologetics, commentary, and devotional-style blogs out there right now (including mine!). Tell me about the blog you contribute to, Mere Orthodoxy, and what role it plays in the blogosphere.

MA: Mere Orthodoxy, or just Mere-O, started as a joint venture with college friends. We wanted it to be a haven for reasonable conversations about faith and culture from the standpoint of mere orthodoxy, the classical, conservative Christian tradition.

LW: What role does your blog play in the blogosphere?

MA: It’s a small role; I wouldn’t say that it is a major stopping point in the Christian blogging community. We at Mere-O try to aim at more substantive analysis about events happening in church and culture, and sometimes that doesn’t play well online. Politics are what always draws traffic, and there were so many issues were related to faith and politics in the last election cycle.

LW: What are the issues that you personally like to emphasize?

MA: I don’t really have a specific area. It depends on what I’m reading at the time. Life and death issues are always an interest for me; so are theological issues particularly from a historical angle. Of particular interest is the state of the church in North America and how we can make it thrive, specifically with young people.

LW: The book, The New Media Frontier, contains a chapter by you. Briefly tell me about the purpose of the book and what your thoughts are in it.

MA: [Jokingly] That was a mistake by the publisher. They should not have had me in there. The purpose of the book is to equip those who are unfamiliar with new media (particularly blogging). For Christians, it is a valuable resource. I was at a Family Research Council meeting recently and the room was full of laypeople who were aware enough to come to a blogging conference, but they didn’t understand how to blog, how to comment, or what to write about. Those who do blog seem to be culturally aware Christians. The book seeks to provide laypeople with a greater cultural awareness on a practical level. It contains chapters on using the new media within church settings, apologetics, and bioethics. The day-to-day Christian life has to be carried over to your online neighbor with the goal of being a winsome witness for the Gospel.

LW: Now, you've also written a couple of other things that have gotten some attention lately. The first is your article, titled The New Evangelical Scandal, in which you point out that political allegiances in younger evangelicals have shifted because of shifting priorities. It has drawn some criticism but a lot of agreement as well. I perceive that those who disagree that they ought to be thought of negatively in this way. Rather, they see it as a positive. How do you respond to that?

MA: I understand the rationale behind the leftward shift in thinking (having a greater affection for social justice, big government accommodation, and repudiation of the religious right). However, I have a difficult time sympathizing with a lot of it, because much of it is a failure of them to understand the issues well. For younger evangelicals to say there are other things that Republicans need to address is correct. But to then say that we should campaign for and support someone who misses the abortion issue but supports others is misguided. Abortion and marriage are still among the most important issues that come to my mind.

LW: How serious is this situation, in your opinion?

MA: Well, I’ve taken a lot of grief for the article, being pigeonholed as the typical right-wing nut. My tone towards the younger evangelical liberalization was critical, but a lot of their conclusions I’m okay with. I employ many of the things they emphasize, like [open dialogue and] conversation, which is always desirable. My criticisms are primarily about their reasons for using them. I don’t think the situation is all that serious, because most people who really love Jesus can also be persuaded to think more clearly about Jesus as well.

LW: The criticism I see from "younger evangelicals" against, to make a contrast, "older evangelicals" is a lack of cultural engagement and anti-intellectualism. Yet, I can see that younger evangelicals are also guilty of those same things, only in different ways. For example, I don't see much sympathy for poor, disenfranchised Southern white people. I also don't see any more interest in pursuing Christianity intellectually than in previous decades proportionally to the available information out there. How do you view the criticism?

MA: The second criticism is spot on. We should persuade Christian evangelicals that reading hard books is something we should be doing with our time. It is true that there is as much anti-intellectualism with the younger crowd as with the older. Most younger, white evangelicals tend to be more intellectual in part because their parents put them through college. We're using what our parents provided and berating them for what most of them had no opportunity to have at the same level. Let’s check the criticisms we are making and the plank in our own eyes first.

Regarding cultural engagement, our parents’ generation did engage in culture but differently. Beating up on the evangelical ghetto is an easy thing to do. [But let’s consider that] the Jewish people preserved their culture in a hostile world by living in a ghetto. Sometimes that is a good cultural strategy to have. Our parents saw their world as hostile, so that may have been a good strategy. For us, the new engagement may end up being consumption. A lot of the mantra of cultural engagement may be an excuse to consume the culture without asking, “is this antithetical [to Christianity]?” We don’t need to consume culture in order to witness to it.

LW: So, you're twenty-six years of age and fit into the age group that typically encompasses "younger evangelical," as do I. Why do you think differently than the evangelicals you describe?

MA: I’m not sure that I do think differently; I do, after all, identify with the ethos of the young evangelical. If I do think differently, it is due to my own education and adherence to [the ideas of] G.K. Chesterton. We need to cultivate Chestertonian patriotism with respect to evangelicalism, which loves it while working to reform it. That’s what I’d like to do.

LW: You also wrote an online series about dating and marriage. A lot of people are going to wonder how does a twenty-something young man who's still technically a newlywed himself know anything about marriage! Tell me what this book does.

MA: People forget that Josh Harris wrote I Kissed Dating Goodbye when he was 18. I think there is something to be said for saying what needs to be said. I think I am writing as one who has made a lot of mistakes, all the mistakes (though I’m not making a comparison between me and Josh Harris). The insights into marriage and dating are fundamentally from my own experiences in dating, both painful and joyful. I came to realize that no one in the Christian world has any idea how young people are supposed to navigate dating. The confusion and the decay of the social fabric place an immense responsibility on the individual to make good decisions themselves, because no institution is helping them along the way. My writing tries to address how thoughts about God and relationships affect their romantic life. Then I move into the practical as to how they should behave. I really want to push off the “what should I do?” questions and ask instead “what do I think about marriage and God?” If you’re on your own, you are going to do well or do badly based on who you are. [It’s a call] to make sure you’re a good person and understand the Gospel.

LW: Please share an example of what you’ve learned.

MA: I’ve learned that we talk a very good game about marriage in the evangelical world, but few people actually commit to the principles [of Christian marriage]. Personally, I was getting the emotional benefits of marriage without being married, which is a common occurrence, both in the evangelical world as well as the world in general. Ask 90% of evangelicals about marriage [and they’ll say] “yes, I believe in marriage,” but in reality that belief doesn’t affect their day-to-day romantic life. That’s really a problem. I reached a point where I realized that even though I affirmed marriage in some abstract way, I didn’t really have any reasons why it was better than any of the alternatives. People don’t have a robust vision of why they should get married.

LW: What can the church do to correct this perception?

MA: The misperception of marriage is that whatever it is, it is in the eye of the beholder. We do funny things at weddings, and we don’t know why. Helping young evangelicals to understand the traditions surrounding weddings and marriage would be a good start--for example, cutting the cake and serving each other—the idea behind it is that this is the first act of mutual service, which is at the heart of Christian marriage. The [joke of] shoving of cake [into the face] is a perversion of that. We need to recover the [meaning of] traditions and grasp the deeper ideas of marriage. These are fundamentally Chesterton’s views; he says it a lot better than I.

We spent the last few minutes talking about church and moving to St. Louis. I am thankful that we have both found The Journey the church we call home. Matt is a great interviewee; I found his prefacing every answer to my questions with “That’s a great question” to be flatteringly complimentary.

As to what I think, I feel particularly refreshed to hear a young Christian articulate the way he does about how he thinks faith should be lived out in everyday life. Our pastor often says we are “living in the tension,” which, in this case, would be the tension between expressing Christian truth to an often unreceptive audience and reserving it for the sake of interpersonal diplomacy, both of which are crucial to the advancement of the Gospel. Christians in every generation should keep this tension in mind and ask for the godly wisdom that determines when and how liberally we should express both.

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