Why the Decline of Christian Public Intellectuals Is Worse than You Thought (Or, Belated Thoughts on Alan Jacobs’ “The Watchmen” and More Timely Thoughts on Daniel Drezner’s Recent Accounts of the Ascendant ‘Thought Leaders’)

In his September 2016 Harper’s Magazine essay, “The Watchmen,” Alan Jacobs explored the reasons for the extinction of Christian public intellectuals, “prominent, intellectually serious Christian political commentators.”

Half a century ago, such figures existed in America: serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now. It would be worth our time to inquire why they disappeared, where they went, and whether — should such a thing be thought desirable — they might return.

On Jacobs’ account, the disappearance of Christian public intellectuals “isn’t a story of forced marginalization or public rejection at all. The Christian intellectuals chose to disappear.” While during the 1930s and 1940s, Christian intellectuals occupied a distinguished place in public discourse, they had all but disappeared by the late 20th century. Some Christian intellectuals vanished into a “subaltern counter public,” their own complex of institutions – publishers, periodicals, web sites, universities – distancing themselves from the broader public. Other public intellectuals distanced themselves from ordinary Christian believers, reassuring their broader audience of their loyalties to a secular, liberal public. In other words, some Christian intellectuals were no longer so public and some public intellectuals were no longer so publicly Christian. In both cases, they began preaching to their respective choirs and, in so doing, abdicated the vocation of the public intellectual, which, according to Jacobs, is something like translator or interpreter or reconciler. The public intellectual is someone whose work crisscrosses the landscape of public life, who occasionally proves the artifice of the boundaries that mark our public discourse, and who afflicts the comfortable in equal opportunity fashion. To retreat into more siloed life – even if that life includes lots of books and magazine articles and hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers – is to abandon the calling of the public intellectual.

If we accept Jacobs’ definition of “public intellectual” and his account of the decline of Christian public intellectuals, then the prospects for the reemergence of the Christian public intellectual seem quite dim, but at least in this model there is a measure of agency – they very fact that they chose to disappear suggests they might choose to reappear.

It may be, though, that the entire complex of conditions necessary to sustain the platform and impact of public intellectuals, Christian or not, has deteriorated. For example, as evidence for their impact, Jacobs points to the Time Magazine covers of C.S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr. Admittedly, it is hard to imagine a Christian of their stature achieving the same level of publicity, but it is also hard to imagine an intellectual of their stature achieving the same level of publicity.

Worse, the social media echo chamber of the early 21st century seems likely to aggravate the dysfunctions highlighted by Jacobs, fragmenting communities into something like “sub subaltern counter networks.” While this tendency isn’t unique to Christians, and while social dysfunction in the church preceded by millennia the rise of social media, the infighting (“One says, ‘I follow @Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow @Apollos’”) and navel-gazing are especially unbecoming of a group that should be both unified and for the common good or, in the words of Alexander Schmemann, “for the life of the world.”

Indeed, the disintegration of the information ecosystem and the erosion of a sense of the common good may also diminish the prospects for public intellectuals. In a recent essay in the Chronicle Review, political scientist Daniel Drezner describes the decline of the public intellectual and the rise of the thought leader in its place. (The essay is best read alongside Drezner’s recent Washington Post piece describing the related decline of think tanks and the rise of for-profit, corporate, branded “thought-leadership” by consulting firms and others.) Drezner suggests that public intellectuals level criticism against received wisdom and novel ideas, while thought leaders drive an agenda centered around one big idea:

Both Public Intellectuals and Thought Leaders engage in acts of intellectual creation, but their style and purpose are different. To adopt the language of Isaiah Berlin, Public Intellectuals are foxes who know many things, while Thought Leaders are hedgehogs who know one big thing. The former are skeptics, the latter are true believers. A Public Intellectual will tell you everything that is wrong with everyone else’s ideas. A Thought Leader will tell you everything that is right about his or her own idea.

Somewhat like fake news, thought leadership – now described by some as ‘vying for mindshares’ – is better poised to take advantage of fragmented publics and echo chamber networks already organized, to some extent, around narrower agendas. The more narrowly and more alike a group thinks, the more easily a thought leader’s one big idea may gain traction or go viral. When so many believe that media should be a platform to promote agendas, and when the criterion for accepting information is whether or not it gives you an advantage over your enemy or your neighbor, the conditions for the public intellectual’s bridging task have become more difficult, just as the job has become more important.

But there may be more to Drezner’s insight that the declining class of public intellectuals “will tell you everything that is wrong with everyone else’s ideas,” while the ascendant thought leaders will tell you everything that this right about their one big idea. Drezner’s insight suggests that public intellectuals may have a sort of tragic sensibility – they may be sensitive to the limitations of even the best things, in touch with the tensions, tradeoffs, and instabilities between and among goods. Jacobs, too, acknowledges this characteristic of public intellectuals. Quoting Karl Mannheim, he writes,

any individual intellectual ‘takes a part in the mass of mutually conflicting tendencies.’ The phrasing is inelegant, but the point clear: the social value of the intellectual derives from his or her acknowledgment of multiple, not always harmonious, allegiances, and potentially competing values.

The typical public intellectual, then, will understand that there are many bad ways to organize public life and a plurality of potentially legitimate ones, as well. They’ll often repudiate the former while offering only modest and limited endorsements of the latter. The more we want that one big idea – the one that can explain it all or deliver us all – the more this tragic sensibility of many public intellectuals, Christian or not, becomes passé.

Nine guidelines to shape my use of social media

I’ve been rethinking my social media engagement for a while, especially since November 8. I’m not the only one.

For me, it’s not so much the election results that prompted reconsideration. Instead, I’m convinced that social media, on balance, has played a not insignificant role in creating the crisis of alienation we’re currently dealing with. For all the good it can do, I think it has greater potential to intensify division, solipsism, unreason, and incivility. I mean that for years leading up to the election social media has made many people, myself included, on all sides of political and other debates, more susceptible to manipulation, stupidity, and vice.

I’m considering dropping social media altogether, but I don’t want to make that decision hastily. I may take a while to figure out a long-term strategy. In the meantime, I’m thinking these guidelines should shape my use of social media:

  • Limited engagement. I’ll be giving myself a limited amount of time on social media every week.
  • Zero obligation. Social media engagements should be out of freedom, not necessity. There are other sorts of relationships that do involve obligation, but not social media. Practically speaking, this means I may like, retweet, comment, reply, etc., but I will resist the sense that I need to do any of those things.
  • Social media, not news. For lots of people, social media is their main source of news, and that’s problematic for various reasons, not the least of which is susceptibility to fake news and creation of echo chambers. Social media has never been, as far as I can tell, my primary source of news, but I’ll still be taking additional steps to discipline my reading of news, to curate a list of sources, and to limit social media as a channel for news. For some time, I’ve advocated something like cover-to-cover reading of a few sources of news and commentary, and I’ll be deepening that practice.
  • Read before linking. If I haven’t read it, I won’t be tweeting it, posting it, liking it, commenting on it, or retweeting it. 
  • Think it longer than a minute. If I haven’t thought it for more than a minute, I shouldn’t post it. Social media makes it easy to post things that we’ve thought for about five seconds. A lot of times, those things are stupid. We should think longer before we post.
  • No virtue signaling. I won’t be using social media to intentionally express or promote viewpoints that are valued within my communities. Of course, this signaling does happen naturally and inadvertently, as well, and that’s fine. But I’ll be policing any impulse to use social media to manipulate perceptions of my virtues.
  • No attention signaling. Like virtue signaling. I won’t be using social media to signal what’s getting my attention. Recommending things, yes. Posting things so that others can see what I’m paying attention to, no.
  • No using snark as shorthand. Social media – especially Twitter – invites us to use snark as a convenient shorthand. Snark isn’t always inappropriate, but we often resort to it out of laziness or as a convenient way to stay under 140 characters. That can be unnecessarily hurtful to others. Overuse of snark can also flatten our social discourse so that all of our disagreements – and we should have disagreements – are sharply critical, cutting, or snide. Many disagreements should not be so sharp. Moreover, overuse of snark inadvertently reduces the value of sharp words. Overuse makes sharp words worth less, so that their effect is diminished when prudence or necessity does call for them.
  • Prioritize connection and conversation. I’ll be focusing on using social media to connect with people. This means building networks with people I know beyond social media or with people who have, as one friend recently put it, some “skin in the conversational game,” users with a genuine sense of reciprocity. So I won’t be following to find out what “So and so says about X.” If So and So isn’t involved in conversation about X, then I don’t need them in my feed. I’m not here primarily for their commentary – I’ve already decided what sources I’ll look to for commentary, and I’m getting that elsewhere. I’m on social media primarily to have a conversation, learn, and grow, with others who are committed to the same. If that’s possible here, I may stay a while.

Experiments in reducing distraction and multitasking

While traveling this week, I read a few very good pieces on our epidemic of distraction:

I highly recommend these pieces, which helped me to identify some experiments for dealing with distraction. Among the strategies I’ll try:

  • Minimizing and sequestering “black hole” apps that suck users in with one task and then hold their attention for a long time afterward with any number of unrelated distractions (see FB, Twitter, etc.) Tonight I completely eliminated email and social media from my phone. I also deleted every multi-purpose, “black hole” app – the kind that, after I open them for one purpose, hold my attention with various other tasks and distractions. Pretty much every app left on my phone is single-use, highly utilitarian, and very boring. No black holes left (except the web browser, which can’t be deleted). This should keep me less distracted when out and about with friends and family.
  • Dividing labor among devices. Using the phone for voice and video calls, texts, calendaring, and single-purpose utilities, especially when out and about. Using email, social media, and web on a tablet that, unlike my phone, doesn’t go everywhere I do. Trying to avoid email, social media, and other time-sucks on my laptop in order to avoid distractions while writing (this will be the hard part, but I have some ides about how to do it). 
  • Using only one device at a time (e.g., when I’m writing, keeping the tablet or phone at some physical distance and/or turned off; when I’m out with friends and family, taking only the phone).

We’ll see if this experiment works. Seems to me it’s worth a try.

A Five-Part Tribute to Brett Foster

1

Last night I witnessed Arena Theater’s moving tribute to my
dear friend, Brett Foster. The performance included a carefully curated
selection of Brett’s poems – equal parts innocent delight and worldly passion.
The poems read especially revealed Brett’s ability to take in the world around
him, to hear it and see it for what it is, and to give it back to us transformed
and imbued with fresh meaning, so that we can also, sometimes seemingly for the
first time, see it for what it is.

At the beginning of the performance, it seemed to me that
the players were bringing to life Brett’s words – that they were bringing back
to life Brett’s voice, just one night after his death. While that much is true,
by the end I was truly inspired by the way that Brett’s words had brought to
life the performance and the way that Brett, himself, had enlivened the actors and audience.

2

Some may be saddened by the thought that Brett did not get
to see the performance of his work – he passed away at home during the first
performance on Monday night – but he did take in a Sunday afternoon rehearsal
in a final show of his trademark irrepressibility. According to those closest
to him, Brett spent most of Sunday saying he couldn’t make it to the rehearsal.
Many who know him well may recognize that this may have been the first time he
ever told himself he couldn’t do something. Brett often thought he could do
more than others thought he could, especially during his 17-month battle with
cancer. (To his credit, he was usually right about himself, and he also thought his friends could do more than they thought they could!) So, for some of Sunday, as he insisted he could not see the rehearsal, it might have seemed like the cancer had
finally invaded his will, like it had metastasized to his spirit.

It might have been Brett’s greatest show of irrepressibility,
then, when he finally declared, at the last minute, in the midst of his
gravest trials, and against even his own advice, that he would still go to see the rehearsal. Word is that he
was out the door five minutes after making the decision – for Brett’s friends, this quick exit may be
the most unbelievable part of the story – and that his family helped him down
the stairs and into a seat in the theater, where the performers, already
halfway through the rehearsal, started over for him. Even after all the times
that Brett defied odds and advice – going to Ireland with his family this past
summer, for example – finally defying his rapidly deteriorating condition and
his own creeping sense of inability on Sunday brought back to life for one last
time his trademark irrepressibility.

3

Yesterday, I tried to open class by asking my students to
spend a moment in silence for Brett’s family. The handwritten reminders at the
top of my notes started with, “Have students pray for Anise, Avery, and Gus.” As I made the request, I
couldn’t keep it together and had to leave the classroom. When I returned, I
told my students that I supposed I owed them an explanation.

“When colleagues have left Wheaton,” I said, “whether they
love their new jobs or hate them, like or dislike their new communities, regret
their decision or feel like they made the right one, they’ve reported missing two
things.”

“First, they miss our students. They say that Wheaton
students bring together a unique combination of preparation and earnest desire
to be transformed by their education.”

“Second, they miss the camaraderie we have among faculty
colleagues – they miss their friends on the faculty and staff. And it’s not
just that they had good friendships and it may take a long time to cultivate
new ones. People who join the faculty here often report that they never had
these types of friendships at their previous institutions.”

“We have a special community here, and for a lot of people,
Brett Foster was at the center of that. He was one of my very closest friends,
and I’m devastated by his death, but in many ways he brought to life parts of this
community.”

4

When I was asked to speak briefly at our faculty meeting
yesterday afternoon, I told a friend that I hadn’t been able to keep it
together when talking about Brett with my students, and I guessed I probably wouldn’t be
able to keep it together with colleagues, either. “Keeping it together is
overrated,” he said. “Besides, if this were a place where you had to keep it
together, we wouldn’t be starting our meeting this way.” Here, with minor
changes and the addition of one of Brett’s poems to which I only referred
yesterday, is what I said through tears:

On Saturday night, I was with good friends, and I told some
of them that I’ve often described my time at Wheaton as my “second education”
because I’ve learned so much from my colleagues here. Ten years of coffees,
lunches, and drinks with friends in art, chemistry, economics, English, history,
music, theology, and other disciplines has amounted in some ways to another
degree in the liberal arts. But just as we hope that our students, through
their liberal arts education, will cultivate certain dispositions, habits, and
virtues even as they grow in knowledge, I’ve learned more than disciplinary
background and “book knowledge” from my colleagues.

Brett Foster was a colleague who taught me. He didn’t teach
me to translate Italian, to read Renaissance literature like an expert, or to
write poetry, but he taught me to be a friend. I watched him share the burdens
of others when they faced trials, and he drew me more deeply into a supportive
group of colleagues during a difficult season. On a rough December evening
years ago, he dropped everything to come talk with me at a restaurant near my
home. I hadn’t asked him, but he insisted. For a time afterward, that somewhat
sketchy restaurant became our go-to place. So much so that when my wife bought
a Groupon for that restaurant, intending that she and I would use it together,
I assumed she had bought it for me and Brett.

In early June 2014, a number of friends were gathered for lunch at a local restaurant when Brett came in and broke the news of his diagnosis. We were, solely by coincidence, seated under a t-shirt pinned to the wall above us, which read “Cancer Sucks!” Speaking of t-shirts – mere days later, as I was about to depart for a family road trip, and as Brett was about to start his treatments, I returned to him a t-shirt he had given me, which read, “Honey Badger don’t care! He just takes what he wants.” I told him I didn’t want it back until he’d beaten the cancer. Before I left, I added his number to the very short list of those programmed to ring
through to my phone even when it is on “Do Not Disturb.”

Over the past 17 months, I’ve been privileged to see the
faith, hope, and love with which he faced the unsettling news of his diagnosis,
the ravages of cancer and chemotherapy, and the terrifying choices he had to
make. And I saw in his recent bursts of creativity his deep love and
appreciation for his friends.

Among my favorite Brett Foster poems is “For My Friends,” a
poetic commentary on a story from the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark –
the one about the well friends who tear a hole in roof and lower their paralytic
friend into the healing presence of Jesus Christ.

“For My Friends”

– Mark 2

The frequency of your kindnesses

to me is deserving of acknowledgment.

Will it provide you with some thin glimpse,

at least, to say that I have felt at my best,

because of you, in these worst of mortal days?

To have lived this one life so multiply

surrounded by friends of an uncommon sort—

immeasurable comfort, source of my pride.

You cared for me in ways that made me

feel like the paralytic who gets carried

over to that gathering at Capernaum, maybe

at the healer’s own place. The front door

is unapproachable because of the crowds.

And like so—: all summer you have hauled

me around on my stretcher, and when

the entrance was barred to us, you climbed

atop the roof and began sawing through it.

(Even hoisting me up there— keeping me

steady and leveled as we ascended

the ladder, what an effort it demanded!)

I usually picture, in my doubtless presumptuous

modern way, that the roof was thatch,

and even so, it would be no easy task

to open up that skylight on my behalf.

Just so you have lowered me into that room

where a message is being heard, something

about all things being restored, made new,

and there I am, well-meaning interrupter,

empowered by his well-meaning crew.

And I can still feel your presence above me,

the weight of me and your sustaining it,

the rope digging into and burning your palms.

Down here, I am unwavering in expectation

for some remark about forgiveness,

though I really don’t know what it will mean

to be told, “Get up, pick up your stretcher,

and make your way home.” I question

the home that is spoken of, and the nature

of that invited rising. In any case, I feel sure

I would do so quickly, both thrilled with sudden

motion but also, truth be told, glad

to be done with all of this fuss. I like to imagine,

too, you guys still on that roof, how easily

you’ll lift the empty stretcher out of the house,

your smiles and handshakes as you descend

from the roof, mission done, and then stash

the ladder somewhere, and race to meet me

in one of our places— a dark back corner

at Bavarian Lodge or Muldoon’s, or perhaps

the side porch, August evening at Two Brothers.

You will not forget the stretcher, exactly,

and neither will I. I don’t envision feeling confident

enough to throw it away for good, but how glad

and relieved I will be, after our pints (my treat),

to store it away in a closet, not thinking

about it, not at all, till I have need of it again.

 I’ve always loved that poem, and not least for the way it
shows Brett’s continued attention to others while he was suffering. But from
the very first time I read it, I wanted to turn it on its head. You see, if I
could have Brett’s gifts – if Brett could teach me to write poetry, and not
just to be a friend – I would write a poem about the sick friend who, through
uncommon faith, hope, and love in a time of great suffering, lifted his well
friends into the life-giving presence of God.

5

On Monday night, when I heard the news of Brett’s death, I
went to the home of a mutual friend so that we might grieve together. “Brett
would want us to be doing this, sitting together, drinking a beer,” he said. But
we decided that Brett wouldn’t want us to be doing it alone. So we extended an
invitation to many friends to meet after last night’s 7:00 PM Arena Theater
performance. We had a full house of people grieving Brett’s loss and
celebrating his friendship, which was, as someone pointed out, Brett’s
spiritual gift. We remembered Brett, his work, and his wishes. One colleague
said that we should not let go the many things that Brett hoped one day to
accomplish together, that we should, in some ways, carry on his work. Another
pointed out that Brett always made her feel welcome, as if it were important to
him that she was there, and said that the most important way in which we might
carry on his work is to carry on in the friendship and community that he cultivated.
Even in his death, Brett enlivened the gathering last night. And if we heed the
advice of our colleagues, then what we’ve learned from Brett will continue to
give life to our community.