Samuel D. James

Yes, You Need to Talk to the Manager

Written by Samuel D. James |
Saturday, January 15, 2022
My parents seem far more willing than I to engage a person and tell them to make a situation materially better, whereas I am far more willing than my parents to use the digital marketplace as a weapon, to “get back” at the people who fail me in some way by telling others that these people are untrustworthy. The older generation acts as if the proper recipient of their frustration is the institution itself and that asking them to make it better is reasonable and right. The younger generation believes that their anger should be directed toward the audience, and that the goal of complaining in these spaces is not to get anything fixed by the institution but to see the institution punished by others.

At the risk of leaning too far into generational stereotypes, which are indeed lazy and perpetuate slipshod thinking, I’m going to observe yet another difference between people of my age and of my parents’ age.
On multiple occasions I have seen my parents, my in-laws, and other Boomer and Silent Generation-era adults ask to speak to a manager. The order at the restaurant was wrong, or took way too long. A shipment was damaged, someone was over-billed, or the hotel room was not clean. Sometimes the necessity of such a tense confrontation is obvious, but often I’ve cringed when the older people I’m with decide to complain, especially since complaints almost always land hardest on employees who make the smallest wages and have the littlest control of the situation (as a veteran of the fast food industry, I can verify this).
My wife and I are far, far more likely than either of our parents to accept an unsatisfactory experience without complaining to the people in charge of it. We’ve eaten the wrong order, accepted an inaccurately described package, and put up with being put out. I’m sure my parents and in-laws have done this too, but the point is that the idea of complaining to a person and trying to get something wrong fixed seems to be more plausible to the older people in my life.
You know why that’s interesting to me? Because I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve known an older family member to take to the Internet to complain. I don’t think my parents have written a Yelp review in their lives. I think there’s been a few negative Amazon reviews, but the ratios of Amazon purchases/negative reviews and restaurant experiences/in-person complaints don’t even begin to compare. Again, these are generational stereotypes that by definition are not true of everyone. But if you look through Yelp reviews and if you use Twitter or Facebook to read what people are saying about community businesses, it does tend to be true that the complaints, the criticisms, and—more to the point of this post—the expressions of outrage and personal injury skew closer to my age than my parents’ age.
What I’ve noticed is that my parents seem far more willing than I to engage a person and tell them to make a situation materially better, whereas I am far more willing than my parents to use the digital marketplace as a weapon, to “get back” at the people who fail me in some way by telling others that these people are untrustworthy. The older generation acts as if the proper recipient of their frustration is the institution itself and that asking them to make it better is reasonable and right. The younger generation believes that their anger should be directed toward the audience, and that the goal of complaining in these spaces is not to get anything fixed by the institution but to see the institution punished by others.

Freddie observes that canceling someone online virtually never dispenses any material good to anyone. In this sense, canceling somebody is not “justice,” because there is literally no justice to be done on behalf of any victim, real or imagined.
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How Should We View the Church?

Written by Samuel D. James |
Saturday, January 1, 2022
This is how I want to view the church of Jesus: wicked and compromised, but loved, and purified, and destined for greatness. I think this should be reflected in everything we do for and inside the church: our stand for truth and justice, as well as our newsletters. For those who spend a lot of time looking at the church’s failures, look at them the way Jesus would look at your own. For those who spend time looking at the church’s glory, don’t forget the sin he died to save it from, that still so easily entangles.

The past few years of my spiritual life have brought two distinct, intersecting truths to the surface of my consciousness. First, the answer to shame, insecurity, and fear in my own individual heart is the gospel, because the gospel not only confirms my real guilt but assures me that this guilt has been dealt with in love, forever. Second, the answer to my suspicion, cynicism, and even hatred toward those I perceive as my enemies is also the gospel, because the gospel tells me that those people are as loved as I am, and withholding from others the grace that was given to me is a sign that I myself have not experienced deep enough forgiveness.
When I translate the gospel into thinking about truth, culture, and the church, what I get is a profound sense that being a Christian is a disadvantage in the rat race to “win” social or political power. The gospel is a disadvantage because it tells me that I’m a sinner, and I cannot genuinely believe that I am a sinner while at the same time marketing myself or my ideas as the cure-all for the world’s ills. It’s a disadvantage also because the experience of the gospel makes certain worldly strategies unthinkable. In secular politics, I am supposed to crush my opponent with every tool available to me, even if it means stretching the truth or doing to him what I would not want done to me. The Bible says that my willingness to do that is evidence against my genuinely knowing Jesus. Disadvantage.
The thing about the gospel is that it moves so quickly from how we are treated by God to how we treat others. It’s horribly inconvenient. But it gets worse: the Bible tells us that if we refuse to treat others the way we believe God has treated us in Christ, it will turn out in the end that we actually were not treated by God the way we thought we were. The grace we will have thought we received will turn out to be a mirage. The most famous prayer in the history of the world features one of the strongest threats in Scripture:  “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
Why does Jesus say this? Why is there a seeming condition on his offer of forgiveness for our sins? Why is the condition forgiving others? I think one answer must be that forgiving people who sin against us is one of the primary ways we remember who we really are. To forgive the person who hurts us is to tell ourselves again, “I am the one who trespassed against God. God forgave me, and I am not a better sinner than this person who has trespassed against me.” Remember that Jesus said he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17). The ones who are saved are the ones who, by mercy, hear that call. To withhold forgiveness is to stop our ears.

This tension is exemplified by a tense exchange between two men whom I admire. David French is a superb writer and an unusually compelling journalist. In the recent past, particularly since the election of Donald Trump, David’s writing has increasingly focused on the moral failures of a plurality of conservative American evangelicals. The failures of the predominantly white, evangelical church clearly occupy much of David’s attention and concern, and this comes through in his forceful and frequently blunt criticisms of it.
Kevin DeYoung is a Presbyterian pastor. He is also a wonderfully gifted writer and an excellent theologian. This week, Kevin expressed dismay at David’s criticisms of wide swaths of white evangelicalism.
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The Closest Exit May Be Behind You

Written by Samuel D. James |
Saturday, December 11, 2021
The place we need to look is not toward the most visible and intuitive exits, but the ones behind us. Behind us are the sirens of history, in which we learn that unprecedented times are not really unprecedented, and that the church was born with everything she seeks from political or cultural magnificence. The exit behind us is the exit of temporal bandwidth, the ability to imagine ourselves and our worship not in the pressure cooker of contemporary dramas but in the sober sanctuary of God’s century-over-century promises to preserve us.

When sensing an emergency, human nature tends to look for somewhere to run. This is true physically as well as spiritually. Every commercial airliner reminds passengers before takeoff of where the exits on the plane are: “Keep in mind the closest exit may be behind you.” Of course the exit doors are visible enough. Why the reminder? I think part of the answer is that when we’re trying to escape, we tend to only look ahead. It takes a kind of self-control to stop pressing forward toward the biggest exit to look for a different one that may be not in our immediate vision.
A crisis is an epistemological event. When something goes terribly wrong, when we feel threatened or know something must change to avoid catastrophe, how we process information and make decisions changes. In many cases, our singular focus becomes how to relieve the pressure and defuse the danger. And that kind of tunnel vision can take us places that won’t actually help us.
Much of what I see that troubles me in Christian rhetoric and culture is, I think, the straightforward epistemological consequences of a church that feels itself in crisis. Many of us can’t even explain how the world could have changed so much so fast. A transformed public conscience has led to unfathomable revolutions in law, which have in turn reeducated the public conscience. In the 1990s the main concern for many evangelicals was how to preserve purity in a vulgar media age. Now the concern is how to preserve a right to say what people find vulgar in a legalistically progressive media age. To pickup on an infamous metaphor that one conservative pundit used of the 2016 election: many Christians feel like the oxygen masks have deployed and the plane is falling apart.
The sense of crisis conditions how we respond to the world and to each other. If you think your survival depends on how quickly you can get off the plane, you will look for the exit, but not in the way you would look for an exit after a smooth landing.
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