Apologetics for the Facebook Generation

Interview with Author Mary Eberstadt

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By Carrie Gress

WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 28, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Christianity has a lot more to offer the world than atheists give it credit for, says the author of «The Loser Letters.»

In this interview with ZENIT, Mary Eberstadt, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute in Washington, D.C., discusses her unique approach to apologetics for the Facebook generation in her book «The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism,» recently published by Ignatius Press.

ZENIT: Your book has a unique title, «The Loser Letters.»  What is behind the name and whom did you have in mind while writing it?

Eberstadt: «The Loser Letters» is an epistolary satire of the new atheism, told from the point of view of a worldly, bubbly, American girl in her 20s who’s an enthusiastic convert to godlessness.

It consists of gushing fan letters she’s writing to the new atheists — Messrs. Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and the rest. Ostensibly, she’s trying to point out the flaws in their movement in the hopes of strengthening it. Of course, as the story unfolds and her own conversion tale develops piece-by-piece, readers realize that something rather different is going on.

As this character — A.F. Christian — points out in the beginning of the book, if the new atheists are right about God and all the believers throughout history are wrong, then God is the biggest «loser» of all time (American slang for someone hopelessly out of touch). Hence she refers to him throughout the book as «Loser,» capital L.

It’s a story that operates on different levels, and I think anyone over 16 or so can read it with interest — especially since it’s satirical from beginning to end. But I had in mind especially readers in their 20s and 30s who may not have been exposed to traditional apologetics before, and who may not realize that there’s a long and vigorous tradition of opposing the kinds of arguments made by today’s celebrity atheists.

Beneath the satire, «The Loser Letters» is apologetics for the Facebook generation.

ZENIT: Your book is a comic satire revealing the dark underbelly of atheistic doctrines when lived out in the culture. It has the flavor of C.S. Lewis’ «The Screwtape Letters» but with a modern twist. Was Lewis part of your inspiration?

Eberstadt: Yes, very much so. Like most people who have read Screwtape, I’m permanently enamored of its extraordinary mix of confident and even biting humor, on the one hand, and deadly serious orthodox apologetics on the other.

That said, though, I had the master C.S. Lewis only loosely in mind in writing this book. Apart from the fact that both stories are pro-Christian satires, they differ on just about everything else (beginning with the fact that there is only one and one eternal C.S. Lewis!)

«The Loser Letters» is told in up-to-date American slang, its protagonist, as mentioned, is a young woman, she’s writing the letters from rehab — on and on and on the dissimilarities go. Most important, «The Screwtape Letters» have as their primary theme the fantastic subject of human self-deception, whereas «The Loser Letters» is primarily a story of individual redemption — edgy and weird, perhaps, and replete with black humor; but still, redemption is its overriding theme.

ZENIT: What are some of the Christian arguments or achievements that your scribe thinks need shoring up in the atheist rhetoric if they are going to win the battle of converts?

Eberstadt: One of the many features of the new atheism that makes it easy to satirize is that its leaders play so fast and loose with human history. As A.F. Christian has a certain amount of fun pointing out, the actual record of Christianity in the world — historical, intellectual, aesthetic, and so on — is just a tad different from what they suggest.

For instance, as A.F. discusses in one particular letter, if the new atheists want to fixate repeatedly on the body count of the Inquisition — as they all certainly do! — well, fair’s fair; but how about the body count of Marxism, Communism, and German fascism, those self-consciously, indeed avowedly, atheist regimes responsible for the most heinous crimes of the 20th century?

In another letter, similarly, A.F. advises all atheists to stay away from any discussion of aesthetics — on the grounds that it’s nothing but trouble for them. After all, as she points out, most of the greatest music, architecture, literature, painting, and sculpture throughout human history has been created in the name of Loser (or in the case of classical antiquity, losers plural, as she puts it).

Against this record, she asks the atheists, what does self-consciously godless art amount to? Downtown Pyongyang? Elton John? Constructivism? The rock band Rammstein? «You see where I’m going with this,» as she tells them. «Nowhere good for us.»

These are just some examples of how A.F. Christian engages atheists about their misrepresentation or ignorance of Judeo-Christianity’s contributions to the world. As she also keeps telling them, her sole purpose in criticizing the movement is to make it more persuasive to other potential converts — though as mentioned, by the end of the book the reader realizes that not all has been as it seemed.

ZENIT: You mention an «Ozzie and Harriet backlash.» What is this and how is it seen in the culture?

Eberstadt: Ozzie and Harriet was an American television show that started in the 1950s, centered on a happy nuclear family of Mom, Dad, and two sons. It’s acquired iconic status in the United States, and the title is often used as shorthand. For example, when progressive-types who denigrate the traditional family want to express their ideological disapproval, they often invoke «Ozzie and Harriet» as if it were something distasteful.

The interesting thing, I think, is that this ostracizing of the natural family by leftwing critics is undermined in a most fascinating way — through the popular culture of the young themselves, much of which vibrates with a wistfulness for exactly that: a home with Mom, Dad, and kids intact.

For example, one of the most reviled yet popular singers of the past couple of decades is a foul-mouthed rapper named Eminem. Yet if one actually listens to his songs, they return repeatedly to themes one finds elsewhere in the youth culture — his anger over his father’s leaving home, his wish that he could give his younger sister a real father, his determination to be a better father himself.

Some of these themes are also sounded by another rapper, Tupac Shakur. And they also appear here and there in other popular music for kids, including by singer Pink and the bands Good Charlotte and Pearl Jam and Nickelback — the list goes on, and that’s only the musical evidence; there are also a number of movies pitched to kids that show a similar nostalgia for the days when most people came from intact two-parent homes.

That cultural backlash, which is very real to anyone who actually watches or listens to it, is not widely understood, either in the United States or anywhere else. But it speaks to something profound. You can take kids out of the family — but you can’t take the longing for a real natural family out of the kids.

And by extension, I think, kids also long in the same, often inchoate way for other traditional institutions that their increasingly secular culture disdains — starting and ending with church. In telling «The Loser Letters» through their own vernacular, I’m hoping to tap into some of those deeper longings.

ZENIT: Books have been written about the brokenness of atheists, such as «Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism» by Paul Vitz. Your author, it is revealed in the pages, has had something of a tragic life, including drug addiction. Was there more to this element as an inclusion in the book aside from dark humor?

Eberstadt: Oh, very much so. In a sense, A.F. Christian is Everygirl. She’s someone recognizable to almost all of us today —
a young woman who grew up in a believing home, then went off to college and lost her faith, and finally moved on out into the wider world where her religious disarming proved detrimental to her.

My point is that bad and unwanted and avoidable things happened to A.F. not by accident, but precisely because our increasingly secularized world makes young people more vulnerable than they used to be to all kinds of toxic trends. I think this is especially true for young women.

The cheerleading for sexual liberation that every single new atheist engages in has a dark downside that none of them admit. It makes it much easier to exploit young women in the name of liberation, as A.F. unfortunately discovers.

In making her a character who can speak about her story in the same language of so many other broken young people today, I’m trying to reach people just like her — in part in the hopes that thinking twice about their religious beliefs might protect them, as no one was able to protect A.F.

ZENIT: While your book is a satire about how atheism just doesn’t get things right, do you have suggestions — beyond «buy my book» — about how Catholics can help spread the truth about all that Christianity has to offer?

Eberstadt: Part of the reason why the new atheists have been so successful in the Western public square is that they are assertive, bold, and unambiguous. Young people especially respond positively to assertive adults.

So the solution for those who want to counter this movement, I think — or even just to keep it from dumbing down our understanding of Western civilization — is to take that lesson about being proactive from the new atheist movement itself.

Whether we’re writers or youth leaders or teachers or construction workers doesn’t matter; we’re all expected to take a stand sooner or later. And when we do, to put the point in more American slang, we should «play offense — not defense.» That’s one more reason why I wrote the book.

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