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Living under the progressive gaze

Christians must ignore the human censor in our heads and remember we serve the Lord


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Living under the progressive gaze
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A week or so ago, I was observing the way that certain Christians write, preach, and engage on social media, and a phrase came to mind that I’d picked up from conversations about race in America. The phrase was “the white gaze.” Popularized by novelist Toni Morrison, the concept has to do with one’s default reader or observer, the idealized audience for which someone writes. Black authors writing under the white gaze feel constrained to adapt to the assumptions of white readers, which are taken to be normative. As the entry in Wikipedia puts it, “Various authors of color describe it as a voice in their heads that reminds them that their writing, characters, and plot choices are going to be judged by white readers, and that the reader or viewer, by default, is white.”

Morrison once wrote, “What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing one’s race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be ‘universal’ or race-free?” No doubt he is suffocated and strangled by the pressure.

I thought about the concept, because it seems to me that many Christians write, speak, and act under “the progressive gaze.” That is, the default unbeliever, before whom we live and move and have our being, is presumed to be urban, liberal, and progressive, and thus, we write and speak in such a way that our words (we think) will have maximum persuasive power to them. Or at least, we write as if we are trying to make the Christian faith comprehensible to progressives, attempting insofar as we can to validate their concerns and share their sensitivities in hopes of winning them to the gospel.

In other words, many Christians have an imaginary progressive in their head (or on their shoulder), and this imaginary progressive shapes our rhetoric, orientation, and framing of various issues. You know you’re under the influence of the progressive gaze when someone says, “Remember: the world is watching,” and “the world” is presumed to be coastal elites who inhabit urban centers (as opposed to the coal miner in the red hat who hasn’t been to church since he was eight). It’s progressive sensitivities that we must take into account, progressive concerns that we must speak to, progressive hopes that we must show the gospel subversively fulfilling.

Now what did Morrison say black writers should do about “the little white man [that] sits on your shoulder and checks out everything you do or say”? “Knock him off,” she says, “and you’re free.” And insofar as it goes, this is good advice for Christians. Stop catering to the sensibilities and assumptions of progressives. Stop muting yourself lest you offend the idealized progressive that you’ve invented.

The particular men that we fear or people that we seek to please may vary. But the temptation to do so is universal.

But we must go further. For if we silence the little progressive voice in our head, odds are that we will simply replace him with another little voice. In fact, if we press into the psychological challenge of “the gaze” at all, we immediately realize that the Bible speaks directly to it. What we call “the gaze,” the Bible calls simply fear of man or people-pleasing. The particular men that we fear or people that we seek to please may vary. But the temptation to do so is universal. And the Bible places a sharp antithesis between seeking the approval of men and seeking the approval of God. As Paul says in Galatians 1:10, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

There it is, as simple as can be. We must choose: Serve Christ or please man. Seek human approval or seek divine approval. To put it another way, the Scriptures insist that we remember a most basic fact, one so obvious that we are prone to forget it. “A man’s ways are before the eyes of the Lord, and he ponders all his paths” (Proverbs 5:21). All of us are “naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). In other words, all of us live and speak and act under the Divine Gaze.

The challenge comes in accepting and welcoming this fact, in calibrating our sensibilities, our framing of reality, our loves and our hates by what God says in His word, and not by any other human gaze (whether white, black, progressive, or otherwise).

One of the most freeing things about this is that it relieves the enormous pressure we place on ourselves to say it just right, to make no mistakes, to thread every needle, and finesse every issue. To borrow again from Morrison, “What happens to the imagination of a Christian who is at some level always conscious of representing one’s faith to, or in spite of, a group of rebellious and unforgiving people who are impossible to please?” For starters, they are exhausted, imprisoned by the censorious progressive in their head, as they mute themselves and are dragged reluctantly to the left.

Instead, assume the center. Believe that the Scriptures are both true and good for the world. No apologies. Speak boldly, clearly, courageously, with no muttering and mincing of words. Refuse to be embarrassed by anything the Bible says. More than that, refuse to be embarrassed and steered by the folly of fellow Christians. If God is unashamed to be called their God, why should you be ashamed to call them brothers?

And that little progressive on your shoulder, evaluating everything you do? Ignore him, and honor Christ.


Joe Rigney

Joe Rigney serves as Fellow of Theology at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of six books including: Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles (Eyes & Pen, 2013) and Courage: How the Gospel Creates Christian Fortitude (Crossway, 2023).


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