Monday, June 20, 2016

You Have The Right to Remain Silent

In 1966, Ernesto Miranda, an Arizona day laborer, signed a confession stating that he had raped Lois Ann Jameson.  The public defender assigned to Miranda learned at trial that Miranda had confessed.  The confession came without a lawyer present; the defendant had not been informed that his statements were admissible in court.  The defense appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.  In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court held that Miranda's conviction was unconstitutional, violating the 5th and 6th Amendment rights to avoid self-incrimination and his right to legal counsel.  Henceforth, the "Miranda Rights" became a memorized scripted used by real and TV cops across the land.  "You have the right to remain silent..."

A far more demanding court presides in America, however.  The Court of Public Opinion reigns over all in America as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835.  The mass of popular consensus rules as judge, jury, and executioner.  It directs all things in our country, a necessary implication of the American devotion to equality above all.  Do you really presume to know more than at least 51% of people?  In the digital age, this more supreme Court issues rulings on everything from dress colors to cat videos.  Often, these rulings are not unanimous.  Rather, they break neatly into concurring and dissenting opinions, rather like the (less-)Supreme Court.  Unlike that court, with the advent of social media, the number of cases presented are increasing daily as hashtags trend.  The polemics are ever-more fiery.  Judges all at once bemoan the polarization of rhetoric even as they write seething denunciations indicting dissenters.  Behind it all lay the pressure in each new case for the judge to issue a ruling.  No justice may be absent form the bench.  Social media have created an environment where all voices may be heard... and now those who have ruled expect to hear them.  The judges tell the others that there is no time to stand idly by.  "You have a voice, now use it!"  No more.  I refuse to speak up and speak out.  I have the right to remain silent, and so do you.

We're told by one recently-viral facebook post, "What my black friends taught me is that the ancillary offense, where grief is compounded and loneliness sets in, is when their friends and colleagues outside of their tribe say NOTHING... Don't say nothing."  Somehow, I sincerely doubt that my personal friends--the only people I know on social media--are in any way put at ease by my stating the obvious.  If they are, then I shall say what is so evident.  The slaughter of 50 people, regardless of race, gender, or national origin is abhorrent.  If we're close enough to talk, you know how to make far more intimate contact than a hashtag justice article.  I also assume we know one another well enough that you didn't need me to broadcast my deepest lamentations to several hundred family, friends, and acquaintances for digital validation.

There are several reasons I exercise this right.  And before we get into those, I must acknowledge the irony of speaking out for silence and against speaking out... okay, acknowledged.  The most fundamental reason I exercise this right is humility.  Plato's Republic is a long book relating a thirteen hour conversation about justice.  By the end and after 2,300 years of discussion, no one is quite sure what Plato thinks justice is.  St Thomas Aquinas wrote the landmark of medieval theology the Summa Theologica--such a landmark that it is the official theology of the Roman Catholic church.  Thomas had a divine vision and dropped his pen forever, claiming all he had written was straw.  Edmund Burke made this political, saying that the world in its infinite complexity could not be remade anew by the radical vision of the French philosophes no matter how thoroughgoing their legislation.  G.K. Chesterton even suggested that the competing systems claiming an all-seeing lens to explain the paradoxical minutiae of reality drove men to madness.  It ought to drive even the haughtiest Marxist or Freudian to more thought than action.

Color me skeptical, then, whenever another trending hashtag pretends it can fix everything.  When it comes to social justice, I get the adjective, but I find myself stuck back there on the noun with Plato.  To say nothing of this simple truth: despite your most devoted friends' or social media's demands, you really don't have to have an opinion about everything.  Some things are beyond my intellect or free time to understand.  I'm just not conversant on everything, and I protest any and all attempts to "educate me" (read: "Show up to my rally/protest because I did all the thinking for you").

Second, I have the right to remain silent because of the performance component social media.  "All the world's a stage," said Shakespeare.  Shakespeare would have learned a new and horrifying connotation to this phrase had he lived to see Twitter.  With our digital avatars we become our own public relations firm, not unlike the actual PR professionals that run corporate social media pages.  Likes and re-tweets equal affirmation.  I admit to this candidly.  My social media page become an avenue for funny bits or sentimental tributes.  I don't think this is necessarily bad, particularly if you're self-aware of what it is and the monster inside all of us that craves approval.  But the sick twist comes when we take up some mantle as a source of validation.  We buy the notion that we're somehow being courageous.  We think we're "spurring a dialogue."  And lots of people will click a button that notifies us of their affirmation of what we've said.  But how much courage does it really take to share an click-bait-titled op-ed with a comment like, "This.  So much this."?  I spent several years running in seminary circles with misguided men who proudly proclaimed a good and true message with such abrasiveness that they regarded rejection of tone and method as persecution.  Never once did the awful reflection occur to them that perhaps they'd mistaken courage for rashness.  They got reactions that fit right in with the deluded self-portrait they had painted.  Some theology dorks would praise them for their courage to preach, others would denounce them as hatemongers.  Exchange the word "sinner" for "bigot" or "wacko hippie" and I'm not sure I could tell the lay slacktivist from the soapbox preacher.  Same tactic, different gospel.

Thirdly, I have the right to be silent because I'm considering my end goal.  Cicero said that all rhetoric aims at something, either to inform, to persuade, or to entertain (ideally all three).  Cat videos, one-liners, and pictures of your baby are entertaining.  The irony here is that the most entertaining performances are somehow the least synthetic.  The honesty of sadness or devotion to deceased loved ones, even the lamentations over public tragedies, belong to moving.  Trouble is, outrage culture feeds more on anger than fact.  Rather than inform, it hardens our opponents and inflames our allies.  And that's assuming they even read the article.  In my experience, most don't.  Did you before you shared it?

Is it any wonder then that subsequent discussion become so incendiary?  How many digital "friends" or "followers" have told you how much you completely changed their entire political orientation because you found just the right HuffPo article?  How many more were driven to a blind tirade?  And did you follow them down the hole?  Did you forget the person behind that opinionated Breitbart link?  Wasn't that the guy who jumped your car off in the rain eight years ago?  Did she cover your tab when you forgot your billfold?  Is all that warm camaraderie gone when you see those stubborn words on the screen?  How could someone be so stupid and ignorant?  The descent feels so natural.  you forgot the whole point was to persuade.  Considering your end goal, your failure is complete.

Fourth, I have the right to remain silent because my outrage belongs to me.  As comedian Chris Hardwick pointed out, sites thrive on clicks.  Traffic.  Views.  The media companies that produce this content engineer it to go viral.  That means they can sell advertisers spots on their sites, generating ad revenue with punchy titles.  It's the very same technique tabloids have used for years.  The new advertising strategies change the ballgame though.  Imagine the National Enquirer got paid every time you glance at its headlines in the supermarket checkout line.  When the rage boils over and you share that story that confirms all your biases, the looking and the clicking spread.  If a service is free, you are the product.  Feed the digital media beast in your indignation and you'll miss how big it can grow.  (Don't worry about sharing this post though.  At Artery Bloggage, the content quality is as low as the ad revenue--zero!)

Fifth, I have a right to remain silent when a man is on the digital pillory.  A year or so ago, a student of mine was in a fury before school.  A Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera cast a convicted sex offender to play the Phantom.  Her anger flared hotter when I suggested she should calm down.  "Calm down?!!  Why?" she demanded.  "Because you live hundreds of miles away and have seven hours of school ahead in which you have no access to technology and an algebra test to ace."  I can only assume this actor was convicted and sentenced, maybe released on good behavior.  But this sentence was insufficient, you say, the system is broken!  Maybe, yes, a particular court far away misdealt justice (there's that word again).  But as St. Augustine reminded us, no court in the City of Man is or can ever be perfect.

This is no problem for our increasingly-empowered Court of Public Opinion.  If you find any judge or jury anywhere has not ruled to your liking, you can declare guilt or innocence, sentence the defendant, and execute the punishment all through your social medium of choice.  Shame that mom who left a dog in the car and only got community service!  Make sure no one ever forgets that rapist's face!  And to be frank, there's a good chance your target deserves it.  But as for me, I can't help but think that but for the grace of God go I.  In my trips to Colonial Williamsburg as a kid, I was always struck by the pillories and stocks.  Groups of horrified tourists shook their heads that such a punishment could be considered just.  My classmates in American Lit thought the scarlet letter on Hester Prynne was impossible to understand.  I get it now though.  What offends us and how we express it have changed, but the impulse is the same.  Two weeks ago some guy I've never met or will probably ever meet got his mug slapped all over my newsfeed when the Court of Public Opinion decreed his rape sentence was too light.  "This is the face of a rapist!" sprawled across his smiling face in capitalized Impact font.  Maybe he deserved more time than he got.  Maybe sexists who perpetuate Rape Culture will think twice before spreading it explicitly through demeaning women or implicitly through microaggressions they can never be adequately conscious of.  I kind of doubt it though.

Sixth, I maintain my right to silence because of James 3.  There the apostle writes, "For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body... So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so."  Are Christians supposed to "rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:5)?  Yes, but “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 6:5).  I strongly suspect that Christ did not have "weepy emoji" in mind when he said one should weep with those who weep.

We used to believe in a sort of Stoical, dignified silence.  we called it the Culture of Dignity.  It essentially adopted the attitude of the old Stoics.  You were born into a particular set of circumstances.  Some can be changed, others cannot.  This includes the perception of others.  Some people were sexist.  By accomplishing great things in spite of disapproval, women could change some opinions.  Others would remain entrenched in misogyny until they died.  In this culture, people were encouraged to put the minds of small, miserable people to shame by their ability to live well in spite of bigoted opposition.  The understanding was that such bullies were beneath even your contempt.  Best to ignore them.  Our culture may well have shifted to a culture of victimhood.  Now, you must bear the mantle of ending prejudice by turning the tables and shaming oppressors!  Odd choice.  As Socrates asked in The Republic, "Do you make bad men good by exacting revenge?  Or do you just make them worse?"  As a very humble woman (who also has a lot to be proud of) recently said to me, "Sexists aren't worth my time.  People used to think there was dignity in ignoring them, but now they think that's not good enough.  They won't get rid of it thought.  I just wish my friends would stop pressuring me into dissing them.  Woman-haters aren't worth it."  Maybe silence doesn't aid and abet.  Maybe a defiant silence does the should better than a digital diatribe.

Or as my Uncle Frank once told me, "Never argue with an idiot.  They'll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience."

This is to say nothing of the most magnificent of all silences, Reverence.  Some tragedies are so atrocious in the scope and scale they leave good people dumbstruck.  This is how it should be.  Maybe a moment of silence should be longer than a moment, and social media harping does in fact count as noise.  It's noise just like the guy smacking gum at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Do you remember that dignified and reverent silence we all treasured so dearly?  It is much harder to come by these days.  Beyond the ears, even the body now twitches with phantom buzzes.  Have you ever been alone in a moment of pregnant thought, the thrones of soulful birth pains perhaps on the verge of some meaningful thought, only to feel an electric tingle.   Did someone just text me?  No... how odd.  Well, might as well check facebook...

I close with our Digital Miranda rights.  If retaining these rights causes me to somehow further a cause destined to bring ruination on the globe, then I will chisel my recantation into the walls of my prison cell as I await execution for not sharing that article on Monstanto.
  • You have the right to remain silent and refuse to trend hashtag justice.
  • Anything you say will probably be used against you in the Court of Public Opinion.
  • You have the right to consult a digital attorney before engaging that troll.  Unfortunately, you can't keep an attorney on retainer pro bono.
  • If you decide to engage without a social media attorney, you waive the right to delete your bone-headed comment before someone screenshots it and puts you in a digital pillory.
  • Knowing and understanding your rights as I have explained them, are you really willing to post that without an attorney present?

Friday, February 21, 2014

STEMing the Tide

Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Try Again at Math

Let me tell you the story of two classrooms.  One was about ten years ago in a nontraditional high school with startling purple walls.  The class was Algebra II, although this particular curriculum integrated algebra and geometry.  I was a sophomore in high school, and a little advanced beyond my peers in the material.  It had been some time since math had been intuitive to me while English, history, and civics continued to be quite second-nature.  I didn't exactly struggle in math.  I could follow the procedures laid out for me, but I had less and less idea of what I was actually doing.  And I can still remember the concept that shut the door and turned me into a math-hater.

Sine, cosine, and tangent.

I remember my math teacher Ms. Gordon* going over the concept.  Neither I nor the other students really got it.  Her explanation of the process was straightforward enough (SOHCAHTOA and all that).  We kept asking questions of what sine, cosine, and tangent even were.  What are they used for?  What's this number even mean?  Why do we need this?  Ms. Gordon got impatient.  "Don't make it more complicated than it needs to be.  Divide opposite over hypotenuse and punch the 'sine' button," she said.  Maybe she thought we were being difficult.

Math is just a thing you have to do.  It's useful for everything.  That was what I'd heard for years.  I'd heard it that time in second grade that we visited the firehouse on a field trip; here it was again in this classroom in 2004.  Math was a thing you just had to do.  And here, as I really and truly tried to figure out what on earth these bizarre trigonometric terms were telling me, I heard it again.  Just punch the numbers in.  It's just a thing you have to do.

"What does this even mean?  It's just nonsense.," I pressed.  I got some laughs from some equally-confused classmates.  This emboldened me to push in more.  I loaded a silver bullet I'd been sitting on for a few months.  "For that matter, why are there 360 degrees in a circle?  Why not 400?  Why not 12 like a clock?  And why does every triangle have to be 180?"

"Because it's half a rectangle."

"But why?  Why can't a triangle exist by itself?  Isn't that like saying that no triangle is happy until it's married to another triangle?"  The chuckles continued as the teacher got a little more flustered.  Now I was a burgeoning comedian on a roll.  "Triangles can find fulfillment by themselves!  They don't need no man to make 'em happy!"

It was immature.  It was simplistic.  It was a distraction from finishing the lesson.  Most teenagers probably aren't asking for the Euclidean proofs underlying the calculations.  And yet behind the thin layers of teenage insecurity masked as comedy lay a very real struggle: What is this thing?  What does it mean?  And before I even started playing amateur hour at the Laugh Factory I had already checked out when I heard that deadly phrase: "Just mash the button."  Sine, cosine, tangent; even the degrees in a figure were just steps to memorize to get an answer.  Just like formulas in geometry.  Just schlock you have to vomit out on the SAT.  Just another thing you have to do so you can get into the college you want.

Years of pragmatism and lowest-common-denominator thinking wrought a dichotomy in my thinking.  Literature, history, and civics were classes where you got to do the fun stuff, wrestling through a dilemma or uncovering the mysteries of what it means to be human.  Math was a chore by contrast.  The humanities became like taking flight for the first time, each rush of discovery like the rush of a loop or a dive.  Math became the canvas bag I relieved my airsickness into when I came down.  Mind you, this was the same year I was reading The Count of Monte Cristo in World Literature and Korematsu v. United States in Civics.  In literature I kept wondering, How can Dantes see himself as a hero while he makes these people miserable?  And even worse, why am I rooting for him?  As I read Korematsu, I shuddered when I realized that the presidential power of imperium has only revolution to check it.  As I learned the formula for the surface area of a sphere, I wondered when I'd ever have to tile the outside of a sphere or why anyone made such a reckless purchase to begin with.

So I did what everyone told me.  I learned enough math to get into a liberal arts college, majored in a humanity, and graduated with Elementary Statistics and Personal Finance as my only math courses.

In another classroom ten years later, I find myself a somewhat reluctant science teacher.  I was always pretty decent at chemistry, but I never touched physics since I'd heard it was math-heavy.  I took the class primarily so I could work with the same students I did last year.  It's a physical science class, which ends up being an introduction to chemistry and physics.  The material is more challenging than anything I faced in the eighth grade.  I also find that middle school curiosity goes far beyond what one can prepare (even if you know the material very, very well).

Yet I had an enlightening experience last month.  We were going over chemical reactions for the third time, specifically combustion reactions.  A hydrocarbon plus O2 gas yields CO2 and H2O (and heat).  A student asked an off-handed question about light.  "What elements is light made out of?  How do we account for it in a chemical equation?"  I was sorta surprised because this wasn't a question I expected.  I answered, "Light isn't a compound.  It's a form of energy."

"Huh?" James asked.

"It's a wave and/or a particle that is produced by exothermic reactions like combustion."


"Yeah, like setting things on fire or explosions."

The boy-heavy classroom erupted into excitement.

"So... what is fire?" asked Jack.

"It's... I guess technically what you're seeing and feeling are the compounds turning into super-hot gas and particles in the smoke.  And lots of energy in the form of heat."

James was taken aback.  "Whoa... that's what all those symbols on the board mean?"

In that moment, I saw something I had never witnessed in this context.  It clicked.  I was used to seeing clicking all the time in my history and government lectures.  I hadn't seen (or experienced) it in a STEM subject (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) in years.  For at least half the class, two weeks of puzzling and confusion had given way to a breakthrough.  These weren't just runes tossed up on a board arbitrarily.  It was a meaningful statement of real process we observe all the time.  It was a really real explanation of a common phenomenon--all the way down to the molecular level--that proved that matter was neither created nor destroyed but changing form.

In a piece entitled "Understanding the Current Condition", Andrew Elizalde from the Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia, discusses the ineffective reforms pushed through curricula since the Sputnik launch.  Attempts are consistently made to "teacher-proof" curricula, especially in math and science where America is perceived to be falling behind international competitors (be they China today or the Soviets in 1957).   He notes that these attempts at reform have ironically made math education worse, not better.  Because publishers are trying to market their books as widely as possible, they cover much more material than necessary.  Really, it's more than any teacher really could cover in a year.  This means that math teachers must emphasize certain topics and minimize or ignore others.  This makes the transition between courses rough.  He writes that this minimizes or eliminates "experiences of investigation, adaptation, discovery, contemplation, collaboration, perseverance and creative problem-solving."  If a student doesn't get a concept, he will ask the teacher to do it on the board for him.  Math teachers may be rushed to cover everything demanded them in a given year--or worse, to achieve a certain pass-rate on a standardized test--without devoting time to the struggle students need to learn it.

He continues, "This fast-paced learning experience leaves little time for exploration, experimentation, discovery, and argumentation--the processes that were necessary for the development of mathematics across history and are still at the very core of what real mathematicians do."  So students need to be able to ask questions, make mistakes, try and try again.  They need to fight to understand a problem, learn a plan of attack, and really wrestle with a concept in order to have any hope of understanding any material--be it STEM or humanities.  A truncated pace that deprives students of the struggle is short-sighted; it gives them procedures but not real understanding.

Struggling is easier in the humanities because 1) it's harder to objectively manage and 2) it lends itself to discussion.  Students are encouraged to throw out lots of answers both individually and as a group until they find the explanation or solution that sticks.  They can wrestle with a text both individually and corporately, chew it over, try and fail and eventually succeed in synthesizing and solving a dilemma without easy resignation.  Teachers are less likely to feel a pressure to fast-forward through material because few are anxious about how our poetry compares with Japan's or China's.

I think there's also a necessary component of pragmatism preferred over theory.  Alexis de Tocuqeville said our American addiction is toward practice rather than theoretical science.  Notice, for example, that theoretical physics is not in the STEM acronym.  Giving students formulas might get them the right answer, but it doesn't inspire them.  It can't capture their attention or give them insight.  It tells them how to complete a process, but not why that process works or even necessarily what all the symbols on the page mean.  That comes only through the arduous process of struggle.

In spite of disparaging, contrary remarks I have made in the past, STEM subjects are not boring, rote chores or the refuges of uninspired pragmatists.  They only become that when they are procedures for profit or application rather than for the joy of the discovery.  The best way to learn something is to let it capture you, perhaps even to briefly obsess you.  Now not everything can or will catch you.  It isn't necessary for learning something; I never recall shoe-tying holding me under its thrall.  Nevertheless, leaders and innovators in any field should be (and almost always are) sorta quirky and weirdly obsessed about their subject.  I want my neurosurgeon to have a bedside manner and have memorized the surgical procedure; I want the neuroscientist who taught him to have brains in jars all over his creepy science lair.

I also don't mean to say that practical application of theoretical concepts is bad.  It is only a problem when the practical dominates the theoretical.  Science and math are best studied for their own sake; if you make money using them, fine.  Just don't try to inspire a generation of students with the promise of dollar signs.  Show them instead that there's something intrinsically fascinating about quantifying the amount of energy they burn running a 5k or how to isolate variables in an equation.

So maybe after all these years, it's time for me to reexamine sine, cosine, and tangent.  Maybe the problem-solving skills presented there really do correspond with reality.  Maybe Euclid does have an explanation as to why all rectangles are really triangles who finally decided to settle down.  It could even be that a 361st degree in a circle is tantamount to dividing by zero.  Guess it's time for me to find out.  It should be at least as interesting as Jack Burden's character progression in All the King's Men.  And if not to me, then maybe I'll at least see why someone else gets stoked over it.

*Name changed to protect the guilty.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Reflections on Mere Christianity

            Mere Christianity is the best-known apologetic work by Anglo-Irish author Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963).  It was based on a series of radio lectures Lewis did for the British Broadcasting Company during World War II.  Lewis was the ideal choice for the program on religion.  He had spent time as an atheist, he was a layman, and he was an academic.  Seeking to provide a broad defense of the Christian faith, Lewis consulted clergymen from several denominations in preparing his manuscript.[1]  Doing so allowed him to make as broad an appeal as possible.  He was trying to explain what beliefs united all Christians to a hostile or curious world.  He was searching for the basic tenets of the faith—mere Christianity.
            Lewis begins by exploring the moral law of the universe.  The existence of good and evil are proven by ubiquity; there really isn’t anyone in creation who denies right and wrong.  He calls this a natural law.  Natural law is different from the laws of nature in science; those laws are universally followed.  The moral law, however, is simply the law of how men ought to behave, not necessarily how they do behave.  In other words, moral law is the only thing in nature which can’t be established by naked observation.  It’s the only law which can be broken.  “The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply a fact about human behaviour in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is, or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave.”[2]
            I believe that this is the strongest basis upon which to start talking about God.  Human indignation about the actions of others makes no sense in any other framework.  We are reviled by evil.  We behold what we perceive to be injustice—especially injustice against ourselves—and we react with outrage.  There is no reason why we should act as if something so metaphysical as justice existed unless there really was something behind it.  “Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple.  If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.”[3]
            I was left with more nuanced thoughts in book two chapter 3, “The Shocking Alternative.”  Here Lewis gives the free will defense of evil.  If God is all-good and all-powerful, how can evil exist?  Lewis replies by saying that man has been given free will.  God created beings with the ability to accept or to reject evil.  By creating beings with the ability to choose freely, he also created the possibility of evil.  Love is not truly love, Lewis says, if it is forced.[4]  This defense is difficult to fit into traditional Reformed thinking.  After all, isn’t the real answer to the problem of evil God’s sovereign rule over the earth?  Isn’t evil a thing he uses, without being guilty of it, to bring about his plan?  A lost friend I have once said that the free will defense didn’t offer much solace to him.  He wasn’t sure that free will was worth the agony and abundance of suffering in the world.  Maybe it would be better if people didn’t have freedom or love at all.  For Lewis, God’s telling us free will is worth it means it must be.[5]  That isn’t true for my friend.
            I think the free will defense is adequate to explain the origins of evil.  I am not sure it explains the persistence of evil.  After all, sin had entered the world.  Evil existed.  God could have send Christ at the moment he sent Adam and Eve out of the garden and accomplished the salvation of humanity at that moment.  Unlike some Reformed thinkers, I am uncomfortable dwelling too frequently or deeply on God’s purposes in evil.  I would rather explain evil—especially to those in the midst of suffering—as something which had to exist because Adam had free will and because God intended to reveal himself as redeemer.  Because of the Fall, we know God as redeemer; this greater knowledge of God is somehow worth it.  Like Elihu in Job, man may never know why God allows evil to persist.  What we do know is that he made sin possible, can’t be held guilty of committing it, and will triumph over it.
            Book three chapter 5, “Sexual Morality”, makes an interesting point in relation to sexual ethics.  Lewis notes that many sexual liberationists believe that the sexual drive is a natural appetite just like hunger, thirst, or fatigue.  Lewis disagrees, claiming that the sexual appetite goes beyond its intended purpose.  He believes that this is good evidence for the continuing effects of the Fall.  He uses another humorous example: “Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?”[6]  Why then, Lewis asks, do we not think something quite wrong with our sexuality?  And would not a foreign observer think something was wrong with our view of sexuality?
            Most people in Lewis’s day (and ours) thought that this was a reaction to sexual starvation in the country.  That hypothesis would be bolstered if people really were sexually repressed.  In reality, we see more sexuality than ever in culture, society, and individual lives.  Lewis is right that sexuality is not like our other appetites, just as the Bible distinguishes sexual sin as distinct from others.[7]  Something really is different about sex.  When taken out of its context, it perverts and distorts all things to its consumption.  Like greed it uses people to satisfy a desire.  Unlike greed, lust is internal rather than external and causes one to sin against his own body.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper-Collins, 2001), xi.
[2] Ibid., 20.
[3] Ibid., 39.
[4] Ibid., 48.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 96.
[7] 1 Cor. 6:18.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Hill To Die On

Napoleon's Russia Campaign was over months before he left a limb-littered red trail in the Muscovite winter.  While the popular anecdote tells us that the Tsar's climate bested France, the truth is that imperial troops had overextended their supply lines the summer prior.  Alexander had adopted a brilliant strategy; the Russians adopted a scorched-earth tactical retreat.  They torched their own peasants' farms in their retreat.  The Battle of Borodino was the only major engagement of the invasion.  The French advanced with shocking speed through Russian territory.  Of course, that was the point.  When Napoleon came to quarter in the smoldering ruins of Moscow, his support lines were running through hundreds of miles of hostile territory.  His reach had exceeded his grasp.  There were too many hills to hold between Germany and western Russia.  Moscow would be remembered the high-water mark of the First French Empire.  To call the withdrawal of the Grande Armée back to Paris "inglorious" would be an understatement.  Henceforth Napoleon would not be expanding his empire but managing his decline, whether or not he knew it.  Between antagonizing the British, the Prussians, and the Russians, France had unfurled too many war flags on too much soil.  To this day the emperor's name is a byword for megalomania.

Dad always used to tell me that you have to choose your battles.  He always had a penchant for military metaphors and history, despite never serving himself.  He also saw that I was often stirred by mighty passions on the basis of my opinions.  When others--even adults--weren't swayed by my arguments or reached my conclusions, I resented them and anger would simmer in my heart.  He recognized that I was often carried away by half-truth and spiritedness more than by pure reason, so instead of addressing my poor logic at the height of my agitation he offered advice.  He would say, "Son, maybe you're right, but you have to choose your battles."

"But Dad...!" I would blurt indignantly.

"You have to decide if it's a hill worth dying on."

To an adolescent abrim with youthful fire, these sounded like the flaccid excuses of a feeble old man.  (Though he wasn't yet forty when he said this, I figured anyone who'd spout platitudes like that must be half-senile and more than half dead.)  But of course he was right.  I will spare you any trite reflections on the ignorance of youth or the wisdom of fathers.  It is enough to say that he was right.

In my time at the Baptist Geneva, I have found the culture to be at once warm and alienating.  Sometimes this warmth is genuine Christian charity beckoning the lost to repent, sometimes it is a subversive veneer for earning converts.  The nuances of this distinction can be hard to discern and I won't address them here except to say that loving the lost well that they may know Jesus is virtuous and obedient.  There is a darkness in conditional, agenda-driven love, however, if the goal is to win more adherents to your party or cause.

But the real alienation doesn't come from true and false civility; it comes from entrenched conviction.  The air of the place is thick with pathos, both on-campus and in the church bodies within the orbit of the school.  And should it not be so?  After all, we are talking about a concentration of aspiring preachers who have heeded a Divine call to proclaim (literally, "to cry forth" ) the Truth of judgment and salvation.  Such men ought not to waiver in their heed to the declaration of the Cosmic King.  Judgment shall come, salvation is available, but only for a time.  I don't object in the slightest; may the Word of the Lord fill every corner of the earth.  It becomes a problem when the sermon never ends.

Christians disagree charitably about things.  None dispute the authority of the Bible and the Apostle's Creed.  All dispute everything else (even the Catholics, as monolithic as they pretend to be).  There are instances in the Scriptures were people are clearly placed outside the faith and some where people are free to disagree.  Dr. Albert Mohler of Southern Serminary has argued for a  "theological triage" in which there are "three different levels of theological urgency, each corresponding to a set of issues and theological priorities found in current doctrinal debates."  First-order issues are those essential to Christianity, second-order issues involve organizing ourselves into denominational and church bodies, third-order issues as ones of personal preference that can arise between individuals.  First- and third-order issues are pretty obvious to most; Jesus's literal bodily resurrection is pretty clearly a first-order issue, the color of the carpet in the sanctuary a third.

On second-order issues, however, Mohler says that these "resist easy settlement by those who would prefer an either/or approach."  A hasty decision on these issues can rend the soul in knots as it can divide brother from brother.  Nevertheless, Mohler believes that heated discussions can exist on this level.

But should they?  Must they?

For example: Was Paul talking his pre- or post-conversion life in Romans 7?  Should communion be closed to un-immersed believers?  Is the penal substitutionary model of the atonement the only model?  The best?  Are those who deny it nonbelievers?  Are those who deny a forensic view of justification outside the faith, woefully misguided, or simply favoring another perspective?  Premil, postmil, amil, or premil dispensational?  How important is a "born again" experience?  Do some people become Christians by process rather than dramatic conversion?  Can Reformed epistemology or presuppositional apologists have any ground for conversing with the lost world?  How depraved is the intellect in Romans 1?  These are all important issues that get discussed at seminaries the world over and especially at my mine.  I don't deny their significance.  I must deny the obviousness of any one conclusion on these complex issues over others.  Maybe just because a debate is settled for you doesn't mean that the debate is settled for the catholic Church.

Taking a stand is one thing.  What I have grown to revile is how uncharitable many of my peers are on these second-tier issues.  They speak with the prejudice of scientists.  "The facts are plain for any who would see.  Those who don't either fail to understand or deny it to indulge their power and selfishness."  Is this not the great straw man Reformed theology builds?  (I speak here as the cranky insider or the gadfly.)  Is their no room in our doctrine of the perspicuity (for laymen: "clarity" or "obviousness") of Scripture to say that it's not all equally clear?

Perhaps the more serious failure is the Reformed anxiety toward mystery and paradox.  Holding two things in tension is easy for the poet, the artist, the child.  It is nigh-impossible for the empiricist, the activist, the adult.  Physicists have come to agree that light exists as a wave and as a particle.  Do you think experimental physicists will ever live comfortably in that tension?  Yet even they seem to know that light primarily as wave or primarily as particle is no basis for partisanship.

And ultimately isn't this the luxury of men whose world extends scarcely beyond the walls of a seminary library in seminary-churches in a seminary city?  Perhaps the arrows we fire marked "Natural Theology" or "Regulative Principle" fly so true because no enemy bashes at the gates with the troubles of real people in real trouble.  Warlike men may mistake a friend for a foe if their blood lust cannot be directed again a true Enemy.  Woe to the men who choose too many hills to die on.  They may find Moscow aflame and the walk home cold indeed.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Decade of Digital Ink

On May 8, 2003 at 5:38 PM I published my first blog (originally titled "The Inner Machinations").  I had been writing for some time before that and a handful of earlier stories still exist as backups of backups.  However, as far as personal writing goes, that survives only in an obscure corner of the internet I rarely retread.  I was in high school when I started blogging.  This was in a period before most people used blogs for anything more substantive than journaling and mine was no different.  What was unique about my writing was how verbose I was.  Some might fairly criticize Artery Bloggage for squeezing a paragraph's worth of content into twelve or awkwardly hanging between popular and intellectual audiences.  Okay, I'm the only person to make that critique.  Rereading my early 2000s writing encouraged me; I have come a very long way.  I recently archived that ten-year-old online journal; it is 297 pages in Microsoft Word with standard formatting

But it wouldn't be fair to throw "The Machinations" into a single category.  It began as teenage angst with a vocabulary.  It was pretentious and self-important.  It was never insincere though; I was so vulnerable in many of those entries that I lived in dread that someone I knew would find it.  (In this regard it is quite unlike Artery Bloggage which is shamelessly self-promoted.)  It eventually moved into other genres though, like fiction, parable, poetry, and even polemic.  The center of gravity was always existential though; I needed to write.

I can remember on many occasions being impelled to write.  When I studied the classical Muses in college, I was sympathetic because I had lived it.  I wrote from the overflow of my soul, riding on hormone-induced waves of rage, angst, grief, and joy.  Even when the entries topped the ten-page mark (when word-processed, and single-spaced no less), I always finished feeling cathartic.  It was an experience I had a difficult time recapturing; I wish writing papers had felt that good in college.

I started another blog on Xanga later in high school which had no title.  It served three purposes.  The first was to throw people of the scent of "The Machinations" (I doubt it did that).  The second was to be a place where I could put pithy, shallow, even humorous writing.  That aspect was later integrated into Artery Bloggage with the "You Only Think I'm Kidding" series penned by "the Prophet" (a character who may or may not be an outlet for my real opinions).  The third was to be a part of the community of friend I'd made who used Xanga for their high school writing.  It was a bit more self-aggrandizing like Artery Bloggage is now. As time went on, the Xanga began to resemble "The Machinations" a little bit more in length and sobriety.  Both were updated less frequently as college went on, and I eventually dropped both sometime in 2008.  Ironically, the silence in my writing between 2008 and 2011 marked some of the toughest years of my life and greatest periods of personal growth.  Looking back, I wish I had written more then.  The only big project I have from that time is a chronicle of a road trip I took with two college buddies out West (to be concluded this summer for the fourth anniversary of the trip).

As much as I sometimes dislike modernity, it really is a treasure to have these writings preserved.  I wrote entries when my father died, when I dealt with my first broken heart, and when I was learning about God's work in my life.  I will always have those pieces on hand (even if hard copies are a little cost-prohibitive).  Even though my writing has a different focus now, the core of the endeavor is still the same.  We all must grapple with our lives as they are, with our triumphs and tragedies, with our souls' yearnings, with man and God, and with our heart disease collectively and individually.

I will conclude with an excerpt from a piece I wrote on February 3, 2005 (I always made sure things were date-stamped).  The entry was titled "Soap Box of the Whenever: In Defense of Writing."  It was meant to address writing as a sufficiently manly activity.  I wrote:

    It isn't my intention to sound like a self-proclaimed martyr here. I wish only to defend my passion. Writers and thinkers are valuable. We matter too. It isn't he who runs fastest or scores most or plays best that is remembered and studied for years to come. It's those who've stopped and have something to say about life, about love, about logic, and about spirit. [...]
    I want to understand life. A great way for me to do that is to stop and consider it. That's all that writing is, really. Defining life in words. And a good writer knows how to define life so well that he not only comprehends it himself, but makes others see it through his writing. He has life so well-described that the reader cannot help but be swept up in his musings as well. He takes us to places we've been before, but deeper and further than we journeyed on our own. That's the kind of writer I want to be. The one that captures his readers and entices them with an adventure they can't help but join in. A beautiful slavery.

I would no longer describe good writing as "defining life in words", but I do think it gets at something real.  Socrates has since taught me that we shouldn't be too confident in having God, life, and our hearts contained in pithy, inadequate words.  I maintain that there is something real and true to it even if there can be no real end to our words.  Should there be?  Writing was and remains "a beautiful slavery" to the muse.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

To Grow in Wisdom: Jesus as a Model of Liberal Arts (Part 2)

            Perhaps he could, some may argue.  “Of course he knew how to refute them; he was God and God knows everything.  Jesus didn’t need to learn the Bible because he wrote it!”  Yet this ignores what Luke told us earlier in his gospel.  “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).  This means that the four-year-old Jesus did not have a supernatural knowledge of reality.  He was not discoursing in Christian metaphysics while his kindergarten playmates ate mud pies.  He had to learn things just as we all must.  He knew the Bible not because he had a supernatural, divine memory of it but because he applied himself to it.  He learned it.  The Book of Hebrews tells us that he lived just as we did and felt the full human experience.  He cannot be held to be fully human if he didn’t live the human experience—including long days of note-taking and memorization.
            However, Jesus not only demonstrates intellectual knowledge but also earthy, tangible service, though always to serve the greater purpose of his ministry.  His sermons were not designed for academic audiences but popular ones.  His audiences were primarily farmers and fishermen.  His parables frequently use blue-collar metaphors familiar to them.  One of the most explicit stories of Jesus’s concern for the practical comes in his healing of the paralytic.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that a crippled man is brought to Jesus.  He is lowered through the roof of the house in which Jesus is teaching.  When the man is lowered to him, he announces that the man’s sins are forgiven.  The Pharisees balk, murmuring to themselves that this is blasphemy.  Jesus knows their hearts and announces that he will prove his authority to forgive sin by healing the man.  We see in this that Jesus’s tangible ministry is spurred by a spiritual imperative.  Time would fail me to explore other examples like the feeding of the multitudes, his social discourse in the Sermon on the Mount, his affirmation of paying taxes to Caesar, even raising the dead.  Nevertheless, it is clear that Jesus believes that a bodily life must be grounded in a spiritual foundation.
            Most striking for our purposes, however, is how Jesus is passionately concerned with the hearts of his hearers over the particularities of how they make a living.  We read in Matthew, Mark, and Luke that a rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked how he may inherit eternal life.  He appeared to have all the correct practices, was obviously wealthy, had a promising political career ahead, and showed a real desire to follow Jesus.  To use Berry College language, his “head” and his “hands” appeared to be in order.  Then Jesus, loving him, drops a dramatic challenge upon the young man.  “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  Rather than follow, this pious, intelligent, practical young man goes away sad.  In saying this, Jesus was not saying that all who follow him must be poor and destitute.  We see numerous people in the Bible who are wealthy Christians.  Yet Jesus knows something about this man; Mammon is his god and he will never be truly fulfilled until he casts his idol into the dust.  He must drop everything and follow this itinerant preacher for as long as he has left on Earth.  This man must leave his doubtlessly promising political career, all the financial gain he has achieved through his job, and follow the Master, an unwise career move in any century.  In saying this, Jesus illustrates what he taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money.”  For Jesus, the heart of what we do cannot be devoted to profit.  It must be devoted to God.
            The greatest challenge to the mechanical/employability view of education is the very core of Jesus’s life and teaching.  Bill Gates told the National Governors Association in February 2011 that “everybody should have a sense of which of the colleges—both community and four-year institutions—are doing very well.  You can even break that down by the departments. […] The amount of subsidation is not that well-correlated to the areas that actually create jobs in the state—that create income in the state.”  And surely this is common sense, right?  Pour taxpayer resources into departments which create jobs, take the humanities off of life support, and you will maximize state investment in education.  Let the English majors be baristas and let the hard sciences do the real work in the economy.  Isn’t that what China and Japan do?  But the very premise of the Gospel Jesus preaches, the very premise of the entire Bible, is that truth must be revealed from the outside.  It is not enough that students graduate, make money, create jobs, and figure out who they are on their own.  The Bible says that truth must be revealed from without, not from within.  Jesus tells us that he came that we might have life and have it more abundantly.  He tells us that the Scriptures have been fulfilled within our hearing.  He tells us that we are in far more trouble than we ever realized in the Sermon on the Mount.  Most importantly of all, he tells us that greater love than we can possibly imagine has come in the body of the modest carpenter calling us home.
            This is why Christianity cannot affirm a libertarian view of education.  Education cannot consist solely in acquiring skills for a marketplace.  Christians throughout the centuries have followed Christ in affirming that education must be holistic.  We cannot be only concerned with right belief, lest we become like the teachers of the law who believed many of the right things yet were “whitewashed tombs”, clean on the outside yet full of death.  Nor may we be concerned only with the pragmatics and measurable outcomes (or incomes) of education lest we become like the rich young ruler who was successful and affluent, yet in the end worshiped money and comfort.  Christian education must be fully embodied, recognizing that Jesus Christ, the Truth, is concerned with the whole person.  Jesus’s final charge to the newly-formed Church is to “Go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, even until the end of the age.”  Disciples cannot make themselves no matter how much money or job fulfillment they find.  They must be taught, head, heart, and hands.