“When did Christians start stealing scripts from home security commercials?”
That's the opening line of an Acts of Faith column at the Washington Post. The Christians the author has in mind are Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, Providence College Professor Anthony Esolen, and well-known author/commentator Rod Dreher. First Things readers who know them are no doubt surprised to hear that those prominent figures take their cues from hokey and lurid anti-crime ads.
But that's the conceit put forward by Calvin College philosopher James K. A. Smith, and he sticks with it throughout his brief discussion of recent books by Chaput, Esolen, and Dreher. Those books deliver a pessimistic overview of the current age, and the authors' learning and experience add up to a daunting foreground that calls for a serious appraisal of their current thoughts, be it in agreement or disagreement. Smith, however, compares the books to alarm-system marketing, with its “horror-flick music” and intruders with crowbars. The analogy is sealed by Smith's coinage for them: “the new alarmism.”
One has to wonder at the thought process that issued in such an overstretched takedown. The commentator has three books before him. He doesn't like their alarmist vision. “Aha! That alarm system commercial I saw the other day—perfect!” No need to weigh the evidence brought forward in the books. Don't bother with the values assumed by the authors. It's the attitude that has to go, the pessimism, and we can get rid of it by images and insinuation alone.
The opening line sets the sneering tone. We are supposed to appreciate the lively humor at the same time that we recognize that the alarmists' arguments are too extreme to be bothered with. If we want a further indication that the alarmists are too “out there,” Smith provides a more grave reason at one point, for it is important that readers sense that he isn't just clowning around. The raillery must have a moral purpose, too.
And so Smith contends that though Dreher praises Christianity in the Global South, he ignores growing African churches in New York City and “the remakable growth of Latino Protestantism.” The step into Dreher's implicit racism is oh-so-easy: “The fear seems suspiciously tied to white erosion.”
This is a slimy way to proceed, and it is noteworthy because it is so commonplace. The cheap shot has become an accepted routine in online exchange. If you can make fun of someone, you don't have to debate him. You've already won. To reach for an absurd comparison isn't a sign of bad judgment. It marks a sparkling wit! To avoid the substance of your opponents' position and go instead for mockery is not an evasion, as circumspect readers might think while reading this paragraph:
In Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land,” it is a character named “Obergefell” from the Supreme Court case legalizing gay marriage that lurks outside the door in a black knit cap. Do you know where your children are?
No, these are the tactics of a savvy observer who understands the moral failings of the other side. Some people, you see, don't deserve a serious rebuttal.
It's unfair and uncivil, but it has an effect. Nobody likes to be made fun of. Getting laughed at is worse than getting corrected. And, contrastingly, how pleasing it is to join the company of scoffers. The subtext always runs, “We're informed and level-headed; you're benighted.”
Hearing sarcasm like this, we naturally reflect more on the receiver of it than on the giver. But when we do so, we miss an essential component of it, namely the self-congratulation of the latter. Smith's final remark on those who “hunker down for decline” proposes an alternative to this bilious negativity—himself:
Count me one of the “willfully blind,” perhaps, but I would never count out a savior who rose from the dead.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.