In her challenging and provocative article “Everything is Broken, published online in “Tablet”
(, Alana Newhouse makes a somewhat obvious, but important and often overlooked, observation.

Newhouse argues that all the institutions and social structures we have come to rely upon to help us navigate life are, to varying degrees, “broken”. Nothing is working all that well in the world of humanly constructed institutional life.

Newhouse suggests that the guilty party in this unfortunate reality is

a set of principles that collectively might be thought of as flatness.

What is this “flatness” that Alana Newhouse sees at the core of all the brokenness in our current context?

This is where I begin to move beyond my comfort zone and things get a bit murky. Newhouse seems to suggest that “flatness” is a reaction to what she calls “modernism” which she characterizes as:

  • anti-classicalism

  • anti-Victorianism

  • the power of science

  • the absence of filigree (which I take to mean the rejection of intricacy)

  • an emphasis on the future over the past

  • the valorization of machine production and engineering as the highest forms of human creativity

These are the qualities, Newhouse suggests that made up the “reigning aesthetic of the 20th century.”

This predominant modernist paradigm provided the soil in which sprang up “today’s revolution” which, according to Newhouse is “defined by a set of very specific values:”

  • boundarylessness

  • speed

  • universal accessibility

  • an allergy to hierarchy, so much so that the weighting or preferring of some voices or products over others is seen as illegitimate

  • seeing one’s own words and face reflected back as part of a larger current

  • a commitment to gratification at the push of a button

  • equality of access to commodified experiences as the right of every human being on Earth

  • the idea that all choices can and should be made instantaneously, and that the choices made by the majority in a given moment, on a given platform represent a larger democratic choice, which is therefore both true and good—until the next moment, on the next platform

These values give rise to a world of “flatness” and “frictionlessness” in which face-to-face relating is irrelevant; virtual relationships will suffice. Any hint of hierarchy is scorned and the driving force in many lives is instant “gratification.”

In this “flat” world, ideas and opinions can be discarded overnight at the whim of the dominant virtual voice. And – here’s where Newhouse treads into dangerous waters – in this “flat” world,

The biological difference between the sexes, which had been a foundational assumption of medicine as well as of the feminist movement, was almost instantaneously replaced not only by the idea that there are numerous genders but that reference in medicine, law or popular culture to the existence of a gender binary is actually bigoted and abusiveFlatness.

My aim here is not to get into a fight with Newhouse, or with anyone who wants to take her on. What I want to do is to see if I can take away from her arguments any truth that is helpful in the little institutional world I inhabit.

Do I see “flatness” in the church in which I minister? And, is “flatness” the demon Newhouse describes?

Is there a desire for “frictionlessness” that characterizes our life together as a faith community?

The part of Newhouse’s description that rings most true relates to a trend that began before COVID but, I fear, will be vastly accelerated by the forced isolation this pandemic has inflicted upon us. I will try to address this tomorrow.