Having a lot of half-formed thoughts prompted by various articles in my mind at the moment, I thought that I would quickly post a few of them here, along with some interesting links.
1. David Brooks writes about the crisis facing boys in schools:
The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.
Far from all, but many of the people who don’t fit in are boys. A decade or so ago, people started writing books and articles on the boy crisis. At the time, the evidence was disputable and some experts pushed back. Since then, the evidence that boys are falling behind has mounted. The case is closed. The numbers for boys get worse and worse.
I commented on this over on the Good Men Project:
It is important to recognize that this should not just be a debate about catering for all children within our education system: it should also be a debate about whether we have an education system that can cater for, nurture, and produce some of the intellectual traits that have proved to be some of the most valuable over the course of human history.
Read the whole, rather lengthy (well, it would be…), comment here.
Perhaps if we had an education system better equipped to form, direct, and recognize the dignity of agentic traits, we would also be better able to produce leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators more committed to the common good and less driven by pure self-interest.
2. On the subject of intellectual strengths that our education systems seem to be rather poor at producing, Elizabeth Scalia comments on our need to get over ourselves, master our feelings, and learn to avoid playing the passive aggressive and tyrannical ‘I’m offended’ game.
Second: a death-grip on an identifier, used in conjunction with feather-ruffled offense-taking, tells me that this person is a passive aggressive — someone so weak that he needs to resort to the tyranny of “shut up” because he cannot trust his ideas or arguments to hold up under debate. Rather than subject himself to a debate he knows he cannot win, he declares himself “offended” and usually demands future silence on the issue and a public “apology” (also tiresome!) that is meant to warn-off others from attempting to address it.
It is certainly a kind of tyranny; increasingly, for me, the boring kind. I don’t remember who said it first but I know someone has said that we can have freedom of speech or we can have freedom from being offended, but we can’t have both.
Timothy Dalrymple writes a very helpful post on the same subject:
The long-term consequence is far worse. While it’s helpful to be aware of the objections of your critics and detractors, it’s not helpful to be paralyzed by them. But the classroom became a place that was littered with landmines, a place where you could not speak freely for fear of reaping the whirlwind. Our social (and national) conversation erodes as we cannot speak clearly to one another, as we exchange sentiment and anger for evidence and argumentation, or — worse — as we hide our beliefs from one another and seal ourselves into hermetic chambers of isolated news and opinion. This is rarely appreciated. There are many causes for the balkanization of our political culture — but political correctness takes a huge share of the blame. We withdraw into our own worlds where we all believe alike and do not offend one another — and soon thereafter we cannot understand one another either, like tribesmen separated by mountain ranges whose languages develop in seclusion until, when the tribes re-establish contact, they cannot understand one another.
And it’s not merely external. We internalize the lengthy list of questions we cannot ask and things we cannot say. Our thoughts become armed against us, and we’re no longer free to think clearly and critically and without inhibition.
“I’m offended.” It’s a dangerous game to play. In the short term you gain a specious “win.” In the long term, you erode the bonds that hold us together. Thanks for that.
This all reminds me of some of Edwin Friedman’s observations on this matter:
The adaptation of groups to their most demanding and dysfunctional members is visible in numerous areas of American society, and the preparedness to engage in appeasement and compromise with those to whom no ground should be given. This can particularly be seen in the activities of those who ‘tyrannize others, especially leaders, with their “sensitivity”’ (71), acting as if they were ‘helplessly violated by another person’s opinion’. Friedman remarks:
It has been my impression that at any gathering, whether it be public or private, those who are quickest to inject words like sensitivity, empathy, consensus, trust, confidentiality, and togetherness into their arguments have perverted these humanitarian words into power tools to get others to adapt to them.
Friedman draws attention to the manner in which this allows the chronically offended reactive members of a population to hijack the agenda of the whole society, as people rally to soothe them, rather than keeping them in line and stopping their invasiveness, a problem that is especially powerful in the context of identity politics.
3. Vicky Beeching interviews Leonard Sweet, about his book Viral: How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival. I haven’t read the book, which looks interesting, although I suspect that I would disagree with it at several points, being much less sanguine than Sweet about the impact of online social networking upon the Church (see my post on the Church and social media for an idea of where I am coming from here), but one thing in particular caught my attention.
Sweet argues that my generation – the Googlers (as distinct from the Gutenbergers, who preceded us) – think in terms of narratives and metaphors (or ‘narraphors’), rather than in terms of explanations and arguments, words designed to make points. Looking at the relevant section of the book, Sweet seems to envisage these narraphors as highly condensed stories that contain in nuce or encapsulate a larger reality. Such narraphors are like the countless competing stories told to us by advertising, compact stories designed to make us feel something, identify with the story or product in some way, or regard the company in a particular light, all with the intention of causing us to act differently as a result.
Sweet really is onto something very helpful here. However, where I find myself parting ways with him is in his treatment of such narraphors as peculiarly isomorphic with the sort of stories that Jesus told. Although Sweet identifies some areas where Googlers are at particular risk of approaching things wrongly, one of the things that I believe he (along with numerous others) fails adequately to recognize is the heterogeneity of our ‘narratives’ and those of Jesus and his day.
Our concepts of narrative are drawn from such things as novels, or from the condensed ‘narraphors’ of adverts and the like. However, these are very recent forms, quite different from the stories of Jesus’ day, and unless we appreciate the differences we are at risk of failing to appreciate the degree to which we are compromised in our starting point when seeking to understand the Scriptures and the practice of Jesus.
Perhaps the first thing to recognize is that Jesus inhabited a thickly ‘storied’ world, within which people cohered within a strong narrative to which all could make appeal, whereas we inhabit a world that has largely lost its story. The ‘narraphors’ to which we are accustomed are more like fragments, pieces of driftwood to which men cast adrift grasp hold after their vessel has broken up. While Jesus and his contemporaries inhabited a story, our stories serve more temporary purposes and do not command the same commitment. Jesus’ world oozed story from every pore – practically ever fine detail in biblical texts seems to be laden with meaning, and does not merely serve the end of historical verisimilitude.
The relationship and tension between society and individual frames narratives and storytelling in several ways. The authorship of ancient (and especially oral) stories is often considerably less ‘individual’ than modern authorship can be, but could often involve the manipulation and retelling of existing stories and appeal to their authority, or communal tellings. The characters in ancient stories tend to be fairly stock, flat, and heavy, whereas our characters tend to be more complex and rounded, with a clearly defined interiority, which ancient characters often seem to lack. To stereotype shamelessly, the ancient character is defined by the external form of his actions and the ‘type’ to which he conforms, while the modern character is defined by his interiority and motivations.
The tension and conflict between individual and society, between the demands of the society and the individuality will of the protagonist, is a common theme of the novel (which had an individual bent from the outset, as Walter Ong and others have recognized). However, this conflict has weakened considerably as social stories and their accompanying roles have thinned, and in many cases faded away completely. While the assault upon such social stories and roles was especially pronounced within Romanticism, by now the war largely appears to have been decided in the individual’s favour.
This victory has led to storytelling and characters ungoverned by external constraints – projections, arbitrary metaphors, autotelic fictions. In place of characters powerfully defined by external types, norms, or roles (‘roles’ are already a falling away from the thicker form of the ‘type’), we have personalities defined by untrammelled self-creation. In place of a world structured and saturated with meaning that claims us, we have a world into which we are free to project whatever personal fiction we desire.
Getting inside the typological consciousness of the Scriptures demands that we be capable of allowing our deepest identity to be defined by a story that situates us within it, to be determinatively spoken before we ever begin to speak. I contend that we postmoderns are probably further from such a consciousness than any generation that preceded us.
4. In a couple of contexts over the last few days, the subject of corporal punishment has come up.
My experience of corporal punishment is a very positive one. I am not one of those who simply believes that it didn’t seriously harm me: I believe that it did me a lot of good. I have a lot to thank my parents for here, as they approached it in a very healthy way. Although I was spanked on many occasions, until the age of about ten, I can never once remember being spanked in anger (and it is the sort of thing that I would remember). My parents committed themselves never to discipline me or my brothers without a calm temper and they really kept to that.
The routine was very clear. They would take me to a private place, explain what they believed that I had done wrong, and give me a chance to explain myself or apologize. After hearing my side out (and you may not be surprised to hear that this generally required considerable patience on their part), they would arrive at a judgment. If the evidence was uncertain, I wouldn’t be punished. If I was spanked, sometimes with a bare hand, sometimes with a wooden spoon, it stung a little at the time, but was never very hard and definitely was nowhere remotely near leaving a mark. After the punishment had taken place, they would often hug me and pray with me.
My most ‘traumatic’ memories of punishment are all of non-physical forms of punishment (in all cases but one, not by my parents). The physical punishment of spanking, as my parents carried it out, had the advantage of being swift, just, with a set procedure and an opportunity to hear all sides of the matter, and being designed to restore relationship as quickly as possible. Indeed, the whole point of the spanking that I received was principally geared towards setting right a broken relationship. It wasn’t primarily about deterrence or mere punishment, and was definitely not about the venting of parental anger at all. The thing that I found difficult about other forms of punishment is that they generally lacked the qualities necessary to restore a highly functional and loving relationship quickly and were far more manipulative and alienating. I wasn’t given a responsible voice in such processes and a sort of running psychological battle between me and the authority figure was established when there was no clear and swift process of reconciliation.
The description of my own experience above is largely an introduction to the question of why corporal punishments, both in society and in the family, are regarded as so cruel and barbaric. All of this ties into Foucauldian points, of course, but I wonder whether this vehement condemnation of physical forms of punishment isn’t in part a means of affirming the goodness of heavily psychological, invasive, and manipulative forms of control and discipline of children and societies. A simplistic bad punishment / good discipline opposition is established and the more black we paint the former term, the more successfully we validate and justify the latter.
I also wonder whether this rejection of corporal punishments doesn’t have something to do with modern liberal squeamishness, our preference for sanitized and veiled forms of coercion, and our reluctance to own our violence. Perhaps it also has something to do with our inability to maintain communities of reconciliation and restoration, driving a preference for long term containment and isolation over public shaming and punishment, and sustaining large proportions of our populations in a sort of exile from which there is no easy return. In many respects such a society of discipline and incarceration, of psychological manipulation and control, is far more barbaric than many of the societies that preceded it.
As Peter Moskos concludes in In Defense of Flogging,
So is flogging still too cruel to contemplate? Perhaps it’s not as crazy as you thought. And even if you’re adamant that flogging is a barbaric, inhumane form of punishment, how can offering criminals the choice of the lash in lieu of incarceration be so bad? If flogging were really worse than prison, nobody would choose it. Of course most people would choose the rattan cane over the prison cell. And that’s my point. Faced with the choice between hard time and the lash, the lash is better. What does that say about prison?
Until we reject the self-justifying myths that we tell ourselves about punishment, and start to own the violence of our system, we may unwittingly continue to act in ways that are considerably less humane than the societies that came before us.
5. In a work recently brought to my attention, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle advances a position that prompted a little head-scratching on my part. She summarizes in this video:
A number of things struck me about this video; perhaps above all, the breathtakingly careless and undisciplined approach to history. The choice to approach history in terms of 500 year periods is entirely arbitrary. Even as a heuristic division it is not particularly illuminating and practically any other large time interval could produce no less noteworthy events in its support.
However, Tickle does not seem to regard the 500 year intervals (of course, in her application, what constitutes every ‘500 years’ has incredibly floppy parameters) as merely a heuristic division. Rather, this supposed pattern seems to justify our expectation of such a shift today.
One is also astonished by the extreme cultural narcissism and chauvinism of the vision, which seemed to conflate the Western Church with the whole Church. I see no good reason to believe that Western Christianity rather than Asian or African Christianity will be leading the way into the 22nd century. There also seems to be a failure to distinguish current social trends from the distinct development of the Church. Why exactly should we believe that the great developments of the Church within the coming century should primarily involve assimilation to current Western cultural trends on gender and sexuality, politics, and technology? Have we lost the capacity to imagine the possibility that the Church could operate according to a distinct agenda of its own, in dialogue with society, but quite independent of it? The Church Tickle envisages seems to lack any of the contrariness relative to culture that the Church has often manifested when at its strongest. It is a Church going with the cultural flow, rather than leading the way with decisive action arising from a clear sense of its identity and mission; it is a Church fumbling for its lines and taking prompts from the culture that surrounds it.
One of the greatest problems with such an approach is the blinkered pride that it can create. People who believe that they are on the right side of history, that God has underwritten their movement, are frustrating and dangerous. God does shake things up in history, but in ways that show that all of us are on the wrong side of history. We should beware of gerrymandering a supposedly divinely driven historical movement in a manner that just so happens to identify us as its vanguard.
One could also accuse Tickle of rather losing perspective in believing that an ‘emergent church’ movement that finds its chief constituency in hipsters is as world-transforming as she supposes (and not just because the hipsters will move on when it goes mainstream…). Josh Strodtbeck (aka Fearsome Pirate) has some fairly scathing remarks:
1. Any time you talk about what’s happening in “the Church,” and you’re talking about some sliver of Western Protestantism, you are being historically, geographically, and culturally unaware. Most Christians are Catholic. Whatever you think about Catholicism, that’s a numerical fact. Period. Are you changing Catholicism? If the answer is “no,” you’re not a major movement in “the Church.”
2. The Emergent Church is an insignificant movement. Let’s put it this way–Martin Luther changed pretty much everything. To belong to a church in the 21st century is still, to this day, to belong to an organization decisively shaped by the ideas of Luther, whether acceptance, rejection or modification of them. Same with Gregory. You can’t be a Christian today without being fundamentally affected by Gregory’s assertions of papal supremacy, whether you are Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, or Lutheran. I’m just not seeing that kind of effect happening due to the Emergent movement, because I don’t see them making some kind of fundamentally earth-shaking assertion that hasn’t been made already.
3. There is no such thing as “post-Protestant.” If you are Protestant, the only way to stop being Protestant is to join a communion that either (a) predates the Reformation, (b) split off from a pre-Reformation communion, or (c) isn’t recognizably Christian. If neither (a) nor (b) nor (c) hold, you are a Protestant, like it or not. So you read Aquinas and think he’s smart. BFD, so did John Calvin. Do you think the pope is infallible? No? Hi, you’re a Protestant, welcome to the club you never left.
4. “Gettiing rid of Christian exclusivism” is not new. It’s not unique. It’s called “liberal Protestantism” and is old, boring, and busted. It’s got a really short organizational half-life because people stop waking up early and donating money to a church body if there’s no eternal significance to anything.
5. No one is impressed by you reclaiming bits of liturgy from the 4th century. The vast majority of practicing Christians already do that. Let me bring you down to earth, Emergents. There are about 2,265 million Christians. Over half of them are Catholic. Add in the Orthodox, and you’re up to 62%. Throw in the Lutherans and Anglicans for good measure, and now we’re up to around 70% of Christianity. Really, truly, we think it’s nice that you’ve discovered some value in the heritage your Calvinist and Anabaptist forebears threw out. But the Emergent discovery of the Kyrie is no more revolutionary than some guy in Idaho discovering that rice can be cooked and eaten.
6. If the hipsters really are looking for a church to belong to, though, they should consider Orthodoxy:
We Orthodox were Christians before it was cool. We started following the Apostles’ teachings hardcore before the Bible was even written. Actually, we read the books of the Bible before they were officially published. And not to brag or anything, but we spoke in tongues before it was “a thing.” Stuff like that.
In addition to enjoying long beards, drinking and the occasional cigarette, we are super mellow. This is called being “dispassionate” but you will simply recognize it as being extremely cool…without trying too hard. You know what I mean.
We do enjoy the ringing of Church bells, but we prefer the more organic tone that is produced from hammering a piece of wood – oh, you’ve never heard of that? Check out this track then; it’s so raw, you’ll love it.
We Orthodox don’t need to explore “vintage faith;” we invented vintage faith, but it wasn’t called vintage back then, it was just called “faith.”
Why oh Hipster Christian do you keep on seeing but do not perceive? The Orthodox Church IS the authentic Christian experience. And seriously, you would fit right in (although if you decide to attend long-term, the priest is going to ask you to stop wearing skinny jeans to liturgy – the handlebar moustache can stay, however.)
Oh, and we don’t just drink coffee after liturgy, we drink Turkish coffee. It’s pretty good.
Yes, that’s right, we say call our gatherings “liturgy” instead of “church” and sometimes we use other more obscure terms such as vespers, akathist and orthros. You should come to vespers sometime, Hipster Christian. Then you could hear “Lord I Call” in the eighth tone – oh you haven’t heard of that either….?
Really, you should be Orthodox. Because some day calling your parish a “tribe” and having Sunday meetings at a pub will be completely overdone, yet the Orthodox Church will still be operating in this world as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things. (2 Cor 6:9-10) I think the church you are looking for has been there all along. Ironic, isn’t it?
6. Over on Rachel Held Evans’ blog, Laura Turner posts on the story of the widow’s mite. She makes some good points about how we give and the manner in which it reflects our hearts. However, although it is often read this way, I am not sure that this is the chief import of this narrative. I commented:
In both of the places where this event is recorded (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4), the event is sandwiched between a description of the scribes as those who ‘devour widows’ houses’ (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47) and a prophecy of the coming judgment upon and destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.
Within this context, the widow appears, less as an example of self-sacrificial giving, and far more as a case of incredible tragedy. Jesus is highlighting the immense human cost of the Jewish leaders’ wickedness and unfaithfulness. The entire widow’s livelihood was invested in a project that, on account of the wickedness of the scribes and other leaders, was destined to divine destruction. The widow is the innocent and sincere victim of a corrupt and evil system, which preyed upon the devout but ignorant poor.
7. Peter Leithart asks, why wrap?
Jacques Godbout (The World of the Gift, 37) asks why we wrap presents only to discard the wrapping. It is a “potlatch” gesture, a gesture of excess, “an utterly gratuitous extra.” Further, “it hides what is in circulation, thus demonstrating that what counts is not the hidden object but the gesture, enhanced by the brilliance of the wrapping and, subsequently, by its squandering, when it disappears at the very moment the gift is received. What has taken so long to prepare is torn up and thrown away.”
He observes that this is the opposite of the purpose of “the tendency . . . to wrap all customer goods in plastic. . . . Here the aim of wrapping is to isolate the produce from the consumer, to ensure that nothing of the producer’s person is transmitted to the customer, not even a virus! As well, this sort of wrapping is not intended to hide anything and is often transparent.”
8. Continuing with his recent theme of gift, Leithart writes for First Things:
Whether Obamacare stands or falls, we need to rethink American health care in a more fundamental way. Jacques Godbout’s analysis of The World of the Gift offers a framework for imagining alternatives. Following Albert Hirschman, Godbout describes three spheres of modern society, characterized by “exit,” “voice,” and “loyalty.” The sphere of “exit” is the market, where relationships are functional, temporary, and contractual. In the market, you can walk away. Politically, people in a democracy want a “voice” at the ballot box, in town meetings, and in other venues of public debate. Families, churches, and neighborhoods are organized around more intimate and more permanent relationships involving personal “loyalty.”
There are serious drawbacks to providing health care exclusively through the market or through the state. Understandably, many Americans have reservations about leaving something as essential to human flourishing as good health to the chance allocations of the market. Doctors know things that butchers or cobblers don’t. Even when he pays for care, a patient is not a customer.
When the state dispenses services, Godbout points out, it “seeks either to supplant the primary networks or to make use of them in order to achieve its objectives.” States “constantly strive to define people’s ‘real’ needs in their stead.” Rather than taking account of individual differences, a bureaucracy “tends to make decisions independent of personal relations and characteristics, on the basis of abstract criteria derived from rights.” Despite rhetoric to the contrary, state-run health care is not public charity or gift-giving. The motives and structure of government services are inevitably and dramatically different from personal giving or charity. With health care, this is a fatal weakness. Impersonal health care is not care.
The alternative is to shift health care as much as possible to the sphere of personal service and interpersonal loyalty.
But there is a far more important truth to comprehend here. Our renunciation of the pursuit of worldly success does not happen in isolation. That alone would also not resolve the pervasive anxieties of our generation. Rather, it comes as a package deal with another kind of renunciation–one that is in fact more difficult, but immediately rewarding: the renunciation of worldly failure.
When we come to understand ourselves in our true state, as Kierkegaard might frame it “alone before God,” we understand the reality of Kipling’s exhortation to “meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.” The freedom that comes in renunciation, of seeing ourselves alone before God, is the freedom from all of our failures, from beating ourselves up over lost opportunities, shortcomings, and the painful comparisons to the people we follow on Twitter.
I have argued for some years that an assault on Jewish life always needs justification by the highest source of authority in the culture at any given age. Throughout the Middle Ages the highest authority in Europe was the Church. Hence antisemitism took the form of Christian anti-Judaism.
In the post-enlightenment Europe of the nineteenth century the highest authority was no longer the Church. Instead it was science. Thus was born racial antisemitism, based on two disciplines regarded as science in their day: the “scientific study of race” and the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel. Today we know that both of these were pseudo-sciences, but in their day they were endorsed by some of the leading figures of the age.
Since Hiroshima and the Holocaust, science no longer holds its pristine place as the highest moral authority. Instead that role is taken by human rights. It follows that any assault on Jewish life – on Jews or Judaism or the Jewish state – must be cast in the language of human rights. Hence the by-now routine accusation that Israel has committed the five cardinal sins against human rights: racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocide and crimes against humanity. This is not because the people making these accusations seriously believe them – some do, some don’t. It is because this is the only form in which an assault on Jews can be stated today.
11. Michael Sacasas asks:
If we think of all of the other sorts of critics, it seems reasonable to suppose that they are driven by a love for the objects and practices they criticize. The music critic loves music. The film critic loves film. The food critic loves food. But does the technology critic love technology? Some of the best critics of technology have seemed to love technology not at all. What do we make of that?
12. Joel Garver reviews Christian Smith and N.T. Wright.
13. John H reminded me of this great piece by David Yeago: The Catholic Luther.
14. Matt Colvin on schadenfreude in the song of Deborah and Barak.
15. My favourite new Twitter account – Fake Peter Leithart. Some gems:
Isn’t giftwrapping an “incarnation” of gift-event? A making-visible of mystery which both conceals and reveals? I like shiny paper. Numinous.
Ordered a “beer” then realized with horror that this is idolatry. Nouns begone! Next time, a “beering” in accord with my event-metaphysics.
Sammiches seem pretty Scriptural too: eating a chiasm.
And my favourite:
When thinking about politics in these times, just ask yourself “What Would Yoder Do?” Then add guns. And paedobaptism. You’re all set.
18. Futility Closet has a very helpful diagram for distinguishing between related but commonly confused terms:
19. The Money-Empathy Gap – how money makes us act less human.
20. Very helpful article on the stupidity of computers.
21. Count Robert de La Rochefoucauld was apparently quite an impressive guy.
22. The ontology of Aaron Sorkin. And, while on the subject of Aaron Sorkin, you should watch this:
23. A journey into the world of North Korea:
24. I have been listening to a lot of Jack White’s Blunderbuss over the last week.
25. From Jim West comes this history of art:
26. I now have a Pinterest account.