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The moral heretics of the woke revolution

Carl R. Trueman | The employee revolt at Netflix carries lessons for Christian leaders


Activists protest outside the Netflix building in Hollywood. Associated Press/Photo by Damian Dovarganes

The moral heretics of the woke revolution
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The current brouhaha surrounding Dave Chapelle, Netflix, and his alleged transphobic jokes is a likely bellwether for things to come, not simply in the secular world but also in the church. The power struggle it represents will be played out in the church and Christian organizations in the near future. And it is a reminder that strange times create strange allies. What Christian five years ago would have looked with qualified admiration on stands taken by the likes of Dave Chapelle and Bill Maher? Yet, in our opposition to the lunacies of our day, that is where many of us now find ourselves.

As of the moment of writing, Netflix is standing firm in its support of Chapelle, and the comedian himself is refusing to be intimidated into any kind of retreat. Presumably, he has seen enough of cancel culture to know that retreat, even total retreat, is never atonement enough. In a world where forgiveness is now a dirty word, acts of repentance, however sincere, are merely the juiciest part of the spectacle of punishment. At least the guillotine was swift. In our present revolutionary times, death by social media is long, messy, and lurid.

That it is employees driving the demands for cancelation is a new twist on the call for workers of the world to unite. In today’s world, it is not their chains to the wage slavery of capitalism that they stand to lose. Rather, it is their guilt-by-association with a moral heretic. The Netflix workforce is now apparently the moral arbiter of what the rest of the population is to be allowed to see. It is the entertainment industry’s equivalent of the kind of censorship by a workforce that has been seen elsewhere, from newspapers to universities. Whatever the merits of Mr. Chapelle’s stand-up routine, this is not the way organizations should be run, and if Netflix fails to stand firm on this, it will be that much harder for the next company targeted by such activism to hold its ground.

Will Christian leaders be prepared for this? Or will they engage in the time-honored practice of finding a dozen righteous reasons for not doing the right thing?

Like the news media and institutions of higher education, Netflix is part of the most potent network of culture-shaping organizations in American society today. The apparent trivia of its productions should not blind us to this fact. Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed that the poets (i.e., the members of the creative class) are the unacknowledged legislators of society. In stating this, he was pointing to an important truth: artists shape how societies think. To update his claim, the movie makers, the comedians, the actors, the singers, the “internet influencers,” are the key people in shaping the moral imagination of our world.

That’s why those who decide what the creative class is permitted to produce exert remarkable social power. They are key to shaping how people think about the world in which we live—how we should behave, what society should look like, who should belong, and who should be expelled. And if artists are themselves mere functionaries of belligerent lobby groups, permitted only to create that which the woke deem legitimate, then the implications for us all are obvious. That is why the Netflix leadership needs to stay strong. Failure on this point will simply confirm what many of us fear: the entertainment industry is emerging as merely a puppet, or, perhaps better, the most effective tool, of the emerging totalitarian progressivism.

There are lessons here for Christians, particularly Christian leaders, concerning our own subculture and its institutions. The next five years will involve many Chapelle-style conflicts and not just in secular society. A generation of radicalized younger Christians is emerging for whom the simplistic and unforgiving pieties of the social justice movement are proving irresistible. Intersectionality will not allow a clear separation of racial and sexual matters. To be woke on one will require being woke on all.

What will be needed then is strong leadership that will, Chapelle-like, eschew the approval of hashtag-wielding Twitter in favor of doing the right thing, always and in all circumstances. That will come at a cost, as standing behind Chapelle will come with a hefty price tag for the executives at Netflix. Will our leaders be prepared for this? Or will they engage in the time-honored practice of finding a dozen righteous reasons for not doing the right thing? The current passion in some elite quarters for regular recitation of the liturgy of evangelical self-loathing on everything from race to sexuality looks worryingly like preparation for the latter. That strategy will not be an option.

It is a strange time indeed when Dave Chapelle and Bill Maher can be admired by Christians. My fear is that in the days to come, as flawed as they are, they might yet prove more admirable than some of our Christian leaders.


Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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SAWGUNNER

Would that earlier deep blue no holds barred comedians (Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Andrew Dice Clay) had faced the hostility of the trans crowd. Let a man be known by the enemies he makes as the saying goes.

SAWGUNNER

That a comic like Chapelle (a very gifted and successful one) along with novelist J.K. Rowling are now both on the enemies list of the Trans Commissar Overlords is in itself quite laughable. He noted that to most cis-gender biological females, (henceforth and herein to be referred to as "real women") the trans women are a brutal mockery of genuine feminity. I'm not clear how a black male can speak accurately of the monolithic perception of "real women" but I do believe Dave is right. To real women the trans women seem to be a crude mockery and the real women view the trans type the same way real blacks view fakes in black face makeup (Ralph Northam, etc): cruel and insulting.

ECCL49

Thank you for the insight and warning you’ve expressed here. Those of us who love Jesus mustn’t allow public opinion to deter us from honoring and applying the Father’s good ways.

Meg I

This is excellent and as usual Trueman uses his critical thinking skills - all stemming from his base, the Word of God. He has become a sort of modern day prophet for many of us.

FIMIKI

It's interesting to me how much of wokeness is such a uniquely post-Christian phenomena. Pre-Christian cultures have no compunction about exercising power and abusing it - might makes right! But after centuries of Christian influence in the West there is now a deep-seated recognition that the weak, the oppressed, and the marginalized should receive special care and attention and that the proud and mighty ought to be brought low. But without the saving grace of God and the transformation he works within us, the man-based solutions being offered up only exacerbate and perpetuate the sinful abuse of power.

That's why I think it's critical that we recognize the heart behind much of cancel culture - a longing and thirst for righteousness and justice - but direct the woke to where true hope is found, lifting up Christ as the example of truth and grace to which we should all aspire.

not silentFIMIKI

I have to agree. I would add that one reason why there is a thirst for righteousness and justice is that the church has often failed to promote those things. Whether or not it's viewed as "woke," we as Christians can acknowledge the very real injustices and wrongdoing in our world; and we can personally ask forgiveness for any wrongs we have done. We can also demonstrate grace, forgiveness, and redemption-which the world does not offer.

FIMIKInot silent

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account."

Is the "regular recitation of the liturgy of evangelical self-loathing on everything from race to sexuality" a poor strategy for dealing with cancel culture? Certainly from the world's perspective. How much more satisfying if all our leaders could stand up, brash and brave, like these secular comedians, and tell it like it is! Of course we need the prophetic voice to speak truth to power and proclaim God's law, but if we can't be open about our own faults and failures and say with honesty "there but for the grace of God go I" then we can quickly succumb to the self-righteousness of the Pharisees.

not silentFIMIKI

Agreed. Jesus told his followers to deal with the planks in their own eyes before trying to help others with the specks in their eyes. I would also like to point out that confession and repentance are very different from "self loathing." Self loathing brings pain and death and keeps a person focused on self; repentance brings joy and puts the focus on GOD and his grace.

Salty1FIMIKI

As repentant sinners we come to Christ recognizing our utter spiritual poverty. We morn over our many sins. We meekly come to God recognizing our great need. We hunger and thirst fo righteousness. Seeing our own sin we are merciful to others leading them to Jesus Christ our savior. This is a good attitude and really the only attitude we should have in approaching God as new Christians and in our lifelong relationship with God.

This is remarkable different compared to the woke crowd who demands white people confess their white privilege which is a tool used to gain power and control society like Dr Trueman articulately presents. This self loathing doesn’t bring you to Christ but enslaves you in half-truths that entangles you in ideologies bent on destroying the Christian church!

FIMIKISalty1

Yes, thank you for that clarification. I guess my concern is that we should take care lest in our zeal we also condemn the truthful part of those problematic half-truths!

Meg Inot silent

Righteousness and justice have a name - Jesus. Anything short of this and man made will not do it. Also, we repent of our own sins and they are nailed to the cross.

not silentMeg I

Agreed. Thanks for the added clarification.

mrbobmac

Jesus said in Luke 9:50, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” God used the Persian King Cyrus to restore Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (2 Chron 36:23). Broadly speaking, passages like these remind me that not everyone I affirm, like, associate with, or even “support their stand for truth” (as mentioned in this article) must be a religious carbon-copy of me.