I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Month: August 2015

Advice for my kids (someday)

A friend of mine is putting together a book of fatherly advice, and asked me to contribute. My first effort was generously described as “a bit cerebral,” so I sent him back something a little broader. The too cerebral effort is below. By way of background, I’ve been listening to a lot of Rich Mullins music recently; I’ve just finished the Urquhart biography of Hammarskjöld, and am now going through Markings again. The last especially has brought back a lot of memories of formative times in my early 20s. So, asked to give some fatherly advice, I naturally gravitated to this subject. (I’ve done nothing with Paton recently, but in those days I read everything of his I could get my hands on.)

* * *

When it comes down to it, each of us is trying to figure out how to be human: how to join in the renewed humanity, which was initiated by Christ in His Incarnation and Resurrection, and which is now being worked out by the Holy Spirit in history. Christ’s example is paradigmatic, but we have a heritage that includes even more: the generations of imperfect people who have gone before us. I therefore recommend biographies to you as a way to learn about the Christian life. Just as I click with particular people we meet in everyday life, I also find that I click with particular people in history. There is some indescribable similarity in personality or perspective, which (following C.S. Lewis) makes me say, “You too?” So in saying a bit below about three people who are important to me, I don’t mean to imply that everyone will find a kindred spirit in these three men. You’ll find your own if you look. A caution: biography can descend into hagiography, an idealized portrayal of an implausibly heroic and holy life. This may have its place in promoting virtue, but I find a warts-and-all portrayal to be more encouraging, because then I see that people make big mistakes in life and still stay faithful to Christ and His work.

Three important people for me have been South African writer and politician Alan Paton (1903-1988), Swedish diplomat and U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961), and American singer-songwriter Rich Mullins (1955-1997). Paton was a South African civil servant who ran a boys’ reformatory, making several humane reforms. He published a beautiful novel in 1948, Cry, The Beloved Country, which was largely a reflection on the racial situation in South Africa. The success of the novel made Paton rich, but within months a political party came to power in the country that began implementing apartheid. Paton gave up his early retirement, and devoted his energies to educating the public about race, through politics. His speeches and his autobiographies reveal an accomplished man, who nevertheless speaks frankly about his own weaknesses. Hammarskjöld became the second Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1953, and served as a diligent and energetic diplomat during the height of the Cold War. After his death in a plane crash in 1961, his diary was published as Markings (translated from Swedish into English by W.H. Auden). In it he speaks very honestly about his Christian faith—which formed a sort of infrastructure for everything he did in public life. His insights into his own soul (particularly his own pride), and life and death, are unparalleled. Mullins is a far less imposing public figure: a Christian recording artist popular among evangelical Christians in the 1980s and 1990s. His music, lyrics, and concert transcripts, however, speak to the quality of the man. (There is also a short biography and a few movies.) I value Mullins’ understanding of the depth of his own sin, and the reality of God’s grace. He is an example of a person who cuts through the hypocrisy and posturing that are endemic to Christianity, to embrace and minister to the church.

These three embody the piece of advice that, above all, I endeavor to offer with credibility: be as honest with yourself as you can be. In my years so far in the faith, it strikes me as rare that a person can look Christ full in the face, and at the state his own soul: without turning away, rationalizing, making excuses, or denying what he sees. It is a miracle of grace that we can do this at all, and yet it is only the very first step in repentance. May God bring His work to completion in us.

A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, by William Law

A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, written by William Law in 1729, is the best book on Christian life that I can remember reading.  The title has been familiar to me for years, but I never had any impetus to read it. Then I read this sentence, quoted in Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy:

And if you will here stop, and ask yourselves, why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you, that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.

When I read that sentence, I moved the Serious Call to the top of my reading list. I appreciate plain talk and keen insights, and that sentence convinced me that Law would have plenty of both. I was not disappointed. If St. James, C.S. Lewis, and Jane Austen wrote a book together, the result would be something very like A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

In this post I am going to confine myself to some favorite passages, though the whole book is well worth your time and attention. First some business. Although the text is in the public domain, electronic versions of the text are surprisingly hard to find. Here are links to a Kindle version, and an epub version—the latter suitable for any non-Kindle device. Next, there are two difficulties in reading this book. First, the language is difficult for a modern reader. Law can actually be quite succinct, but the stylistic demands of the 18th century called for long, complex sentences. So read a Jane Austen novel just before reading this book, to get your brain into shape. Second, the social context is different from ours—again, think Jane Austen. But the theology and moral lessons are timeless. Even if you don’t spend your days in a sitting room dreaming about Mr. Darcy, you’re going to be able to relate to the issues that Law talks about. And now the excerpts…

Here is a succinct description of the history of the Gospel:

The history of the Gospel is chiefly the history of Christ’s conquest over the spirit of the world. And the number of true Christians is only the number of those who, following the Spirit of Christ, have lived contrary to this spirit of the world.

This is a wonderful expression of acceptable motivation. Though Barishnikov’s “I only try to dance better than myself,” is more aphoristic, this is catchy in its way.

Remember that there is but one man in the world, with whom you are to have perpetual contention, and be always striving to exceed him, and that is yourself.

A reminder that we can turn right things into wrong things. This was an important reminder for me, especially in the context of over-work.

For our souls may receive an infinite hurt, and be rendered incapable of all virtue, merely by the use of innocent and lawful things. What is more innocent than rest and retirement? And yet what more dangerous than sloth and idleness? What is more lawful than eating and drinking? And yet what more destructive of all virtue, what more fruitful of all vice, than sensuality and indulgence?

He connects this directly to the issue of pride. (Here and subsequently, I have conjoined non-adjacent paragraphs with an ellipsis and conjoined adjacent paragraphs with a pilcrow.)

It is therefore absolutely certain that no Christian is to enter any farther into business, nor for any other ends, than such as he can in singleness of heart offer unto God, as a reasonable service. For the Son of God has redeemed us for this only end, that we should, by a life of reason and piety, live to the glory of God; this is the only rule and measure for every order and state of life. Without this rule, the most lawful employment becomes a sinful state of life. … If a glutton was to say, in excuse of his gluttony, that he only eats such things as it is lawful to eat, he would make as good an excuse for himself, as the greedy, covetous, ambitious tradesman, that should say, he only deals in lawful business. For as a Christian is not only required to be honest, but to be of a Christian spirit, and make his life an exercise of humility, repentance, and heavenly affection, so all tempers that are contrary to these are as contrary to Christianity, as cheating is contrary to honesty. … He that labours and toils in a calling, that he may make a figure in the world and draw the eyes of people upon the splendour of his condition, is as far from the pious humility of a Christian, as he that gives alms that he may be seen of men. For the reason why pride and vanity in our prayers and alms renders them an unacceptable service to God, is not because there is anything particular in prayers and alms, that cannot allow of pride, but because pride is in no respect, nor in anything, made for man; it destroys the piety of our prayers and alms, because it destroys the piety of everything that it touches, and renders every action that it governs incapable of being offered unto God.

He remarks that good circumstances can lead to damnation and poor circumstances can lead to salvation. We can’t judge people’s “true success” from seeing the apparent successes or failures in their lives. John Chrysostom makes similar observations, but I don’t think there is a historical connection.

How silly would it be to envy a man, that was drinking poison out of a golden cup! And yet who can say that he is acting wiser than thus, when he is envying any instance of worldly greatness? How many saints has adversity sent to Heaven! And how many poor sinners has prosperity plunged into everlasting misery! A man seems then to be in the most glorious state, when he has conquered, disgraced, and humbled his enemy; though it may be, that same conquest has saved his adversary and undone himself. This man had perhaps never been debauched, but for his fortune and advancement; that had never been pious, but through his poverty and disgrace. She that is envied for her beauty, may perchance owe all her misery to it; and another may be forever happy, for having had no admirers of her person. One man succeeds in everything, and so loses all; another meets with nothing but crosses and disappointments, and thereby gains more than all the world is worth. This clergyman may be undone by his being made a bishop; and that may save both himself and others, by being fixed to his first poor vicarage.

A related issue is the danger of living in a society that has adopted Christianity nominally. Law says that this is more dangerous to the faith than the persecution of the early church.

And indeed the world, by professing Christianity, is so far from being a less dangerous enemy than it was before, that it has by its favours destroyed more Christians than ever it did by the most violent persecution. We must, therefore, be so far from considering the world as in a state of less enmity and opposition to Christianity than it was in the first times of the Gospel, that we must guard against it as a greater and more dangerous enemy now, than it was in those times. It is a greater enemy, because it has greater power over Christians by its favours, riches, honours, rewards, and protection, than it had by the fire and fury of its persecutions. It is a more dangerous enemy, by having lost its appearance of enmity. Its outward profession of Christianity makes it no longer considered as an enemy, and therefore the generality of people are easily persuaded to resign themselves up to be governed and directed by it. How many consciences are kept at quiet, upon no other foundation, but because they sin under the authority of the Christian world! How many directions of the Gospel lie by unregarded, and how unconcernedly do particular persons read them, for no other reason but because they seem unregarded by the Christian world!

One of the fun things that Law does is to create stereotypical characters to illustrate different kinds of people. Below, Flavia is a stingy giver, always concerned about giving only to the worthy poor, whereas Miranda is a generous giver.

You would think Flavia had the tenderest conscience in the world, if you were to see how scrupulous and apprehensive she is of the guilt and danger of giving amiss. [i.e., to “unworthy” recipients]

It may be, says Miranda, that I may often give to those that do not deserve it, or that will make an ill use of my alms. But what then? Is not this the very method of Divine goodness? Does not God make “His sun to rise on the evil and on the good”? [Matt. v. 45] Is not this the very goodness that is recommended to us in Scripture, that, by imitating of it, we may be children of our Father which is in Heaven, who “sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”? And shall I withhold a little money, or food, from my fellow-creature, for fear he should not be good enough to receive it of me? Do I beg of God to deal with me, not according to my merit, but according to His own great goodness; and shall I be so absurd as to withhold my charity from a poor brother, because he may perhaps not deserve it? Shall I use a measure towards him, which I pray God never to use towards me? Besides, where has the Scripture made merit the rule or measure of charity? On the contrary, the Scripture saith, “If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink.” [Rom. xii. 20] Now this plainly teaches us, that the merit of persons is to be no rule of our charity; but that we are to do acts of kindness to those that least of all deserve it. For if I am to love and do good to my worst enemies: if I am to be charitable to them, notwithstanding all their spite and malice; surely merit is no measure of charity. If I am not to withhold my charity from such bad people, and who are at the same time my enemies, surely I am not to deny alms to poor beggars, whom I neither know to be bad people, nor any way my enemies.

This really helped me in thinking about giving to beggars. And even more important than the actual giving is the attitude, which Law zeroes in on with the following passage.

When you are at any time turning away the poor, the old, the sick, and helpless traveller, the lame, or the blind, ask yourself this question, Do I sincerely wish these poor creatures may be as happy as Lazarus, that was carried by Angels into Abraham’s bosom? Do I sincerely desire that God would make them fellow-heirs with me in eternal glory? Now if you search into your soul, you will find that there is none of these motions there; that you are wishing nothing of this. For it is impossible for any one heartily to wish a poor creature so great a happiness, and yet not have a heart to give him a small alms. For this reason, says Miranda, as far as I can, I give to all, because I pray to God to forgive all; and I cannot refuse an alms to those whom I pray God to bless, whom I wish to be partakers of eternal glory, but am glad to show some degree of love to such as, I hope, will be the objects of the infinite love of God.

The following is a wonderful passage about actually being obedient in small matters, instead of just saying to ourselves that we would be obedient in big ones: “this is amusing yourself with the notion or idea of resignation, instead of the virtue itself.” That drives a stake through my warmest and fuzziest feelings about myself.

For if he cannot thank and praise God, as well in calamities and sufferings as in prosperity and happiness, he is as far from the piety of a Christian as he that only loves them that love him, is from the charity of a Christian. For to thank God only for such things as you like, is no more a proper act of piety, than to believe only what you see is an act of faith. ¶ Do not therefore please yourself with thinking how piously you would act and submit to God in a plague, or famine, or persecution, but be intent upon the perfection of the present day; and be assured, that the best way of showing a true zeal is to make little things the occasions of great piety. ¶ Now you must not reserve the exercise of this pious temper to any particular times or occasions, or fancy how resigned you will be to God, if such or such trials should happen. For this is amusing yourself with the notion or idea of resignation, instead of the virtue itself. Do not therefore please yourself with thinking how piously you would act and submit to God in a plague, or famine, or persecution, but be intent upon the perfection of the present day; and be assured, that the best way of showing a true zeal is to make little things the occasions of great piety. ¶ Begin therefore in the smallest matters, and most ordinary occasions, and accustom your mind to the daily exercise of this pious temper, in the lowest occurrences of life. And when a contempt, an affront, a little injury, loss, or disappointment, or the smallest events of every day, continually raise your mind to God in proper acts of resignation, then you may justly hope that you shall be numbered amongst those that are resigned and thankful to God in the greatest trials and afflictions.

Law not only promotes Christian life, but critiques the alternative. The foolishness of vanity:

Let any man but look back upon his own life, and see what use he has made of his reason, how little he has consulted it, and how less he has followed it. What foolish passions, what vain thoughts, what needless labours, what extravagant projects, have taken up the greatest part of his life! How foolish he has been in his words and conversation; how seldom he has done well with judgment, and how often he has been kept from doing ill by accident; how seldom he has been able to please himself, and how often he has displeased others; how often he has changed his counsels, hated what he loved, and loved what he hated; how often he has been enraged and transported at trifles, pleased and displeased with the very same things, and constantly changing from one vanity to another! Let a man but take this view of his own life, and he will see reason enough to confess, that pride was not made for man. Let him but consider, that if the world knew all that of him, which he knows of himself; if they saw what vanity and passions govern his inside, and what secret tempers sully and corrupt his best actions; he would have no more pretence to be honoured and admired for his goodness and wisdom, than a rotten and distempered body to be loved and admired for its beauty and comeliness.

The futility of worldly praise:

Think upon the rich, the great, and the learned persons, that have made great figures, and been high in the esteem of the world; many of them died in your time, and yet they are sunk, and lost, and gone, and as much disregarded by the world, as if they had been only so many bubbles of water. Think, again, how many poor souls see heaven lost, and lie now expecting a miserable eternity, for their service and homage to a world that thinks itself every whit as well without them, and is just as merry as it was when they were in it. Is it therefore worth your while to lose the smallest degree of virtue, for the sake of pleasing so bad a master, and so false a friend, as the world is? Is it worth your while to bow the knee to such an idol as this, that so soon will have neither eyes, nor ears, nor a heart, to regard you, instead of serving that great, and holy, and mighty God, that will make all His servants partakers of His own eternity? Will you let the fear of a false world, that has no love for you, keep you from the fear of that God, who has only created you that He may love and bless you to all eternity?

Law distinguishes between the true happiness of nature (i.e., what inherent in the created order), and the artificial happiness that people create for themselves. And he does it with humor!

As for instance; when a man proposes to be happy in ways of ambition, by raising himself to some imaginary heights above other people, this is truly an invention of happiness, which has no foundation in nature, but is as mere a cheat of our own making, as if a man should intend to make himself happy by climbing up a ladder.

I include this passage mainly for the humor:

For as we cannot lift up a hand, or stir a foot, but by a power that is lent us from God; so bold actions that are not directed by the laws of God, as so many executions of His will, are no more true bravery, than sedate malice is Christian patience.

And why not take a crack at a theology of the atonement in passing? I wish I’d read this sixteen years ago. This is an imperative message for Protestant Christianity: “To have a true idea of Christianity, we must not consider our Blessed Lord as suffering in our stead, but as our Representative, acting in our name, and with such particular merit, as to make our joining with Him acceptable unto God.”

Every man therefore is only so far a Christian, as he partakes of this Spirit of Christ. It was this that made St. Paul so passionately express himself, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”: but why does he glory? Is it because Christ had suffered in his stead, and had excused him from suffering? No, by no means. But it was because his Christian profession had called him to the honour of suffering with Christ, and of dying to the world under reproach and contempt, as He had done upon the Cross. For he immediately adds, “by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” [Gal. vi. 14] This, you see, was the reason of his glory in the Cross of Christ, because it had called him to a like state of death and crucifixion to the world. ¶ Thus was the Cross of Christ, in St. Paul’s days, the glory of Christians; not as it signified their not being ashamed to own a Master that was crucified, but as it signified their glorying in a religion which was nothing else but a doctrine of the Cross, that called them to the same suffering spirit, the same sacrifice of themselves, the same renunciation of the world, the same humility and meekness, the same patient bearing of injuries, reproaches, and contempts, and the same dying to all the greatness, honours, and happiness of this world, which Christ showed upon the Cross. To have a true idea of Christianity, we must not consider our Blessed Lord as suffering in our stead, but as our Representative, acting in our name, and with such particular merit, as to make our joining with Him acceptable unto God. He suffered, and was a Sacrifice, to make our sufferings and sacrifice of ourselves fit to be received by God. And we are to suffer, to be crucified, to die, and rise with Christ; or else His Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection, will profit us nothing.

One of Law’s strengths is the practical nature of his advice. We have a motto in American Christianity, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” which tells you absolutely nothing about what that actually looks like in practice. Law observes that we have all had practice in this already, with ourselves.

All other hatred of sin, which does not fill the heart with the softest, tenderest affections towards persons miserable in it, is the servant of sin, at the same time that it seems to be hating it. …  Again, if you think it hardly possible to dislike the actions of unreasonable men, and yet have a true love for them: consider this with relation to yourself. ¶ It is very possible, I hope, for you not only to dislike, but to detest and abhor a great many of your own past actions, and to accuse yourself of great folly for them. But do you then lose any of those tender sentiments towards yourself, which you used to have? Do you then cease to wish well to yourself? Is not the love of yourself as strong then, as at any other time? ¶ Now what is thus possible with relation to ourselves, is in the same manner possible with relation to others. We may have the highest good wishes towards them, desiring for them every good that we desire for ourselves, and yet, at the same time, dislike their way of life.

Need some humility? Just keep it in mind that that each of us is the worst sinner that we know of:

For who would dare to be severe against other people, when, for aught he can tell, the severity of God may be more due to him, than to them? Who would exclaim against the guilt of others, when he considers that he knows more of the greatness of his own guilt, than he does of theirs? ¶ How often you have resisted God’s Holy Spirit; how many motives to goodness you have disregarded: how many particular blessings you have sinned against; how many good resolutions you have broken; how many checks and admonitions of conscience you have stifled, you very well know; but how often this has been the case of other sinners, you know not. And therefore the greatest sinner that you know, must be yourself. Whenever, therefore, you are angry at sin or sinners, whenever you read or think of God’s indignation and wrath at wicked men, let this teach you to be the most severe in your censure, and most humble and contrite in the acknowledgment and confession of your own sins, because you know of no sinner equal to yourself.

In brief then, stop wasting your time with blogs, and read this book!

Quitting the news

I have learned of myself, that when I am working on something at the computer and come to a problem I cannot immediately solve, I often end up looking at news web sites. I have never made a study of how much time I waste in this fashion, but it’s noticeable. Whenever things get out of hand I use a browser plugin (recently, Chrome Nanny) to restrict my access to these sites during business hours. In an effort to break the habit of distracting myself more generally, I have attempted month-long “news fasts” where I don’t read any news at all, no matter the time of day. (About a year ago I did a variant where I only read news from The Economist, thus guaranteeing a certain quality to what I did read.) I am in the midst of such a fast right now and, aside from the advantage of the personal discipline I gain from giving things up generally, I have had some good insights about “the news” in general.

The first insight is an old one, but one which I am better learning to apply in my life. It is this: in the course of the lives of 7 billion people, things are happening all the time. Sometimes those events are momentous enough to warrant public attention: I need to be aware of certain events simply as a part of global citizenship. Yet these events do not occur all the time. They certainly do not occur on a 24-hour schedule. Even if I were to exert an iron will and only check “the news” once per day, I would still be sampling far too often.

A related insight is that “the news” occurs in an ecological context that bears little relation to the real world. The ecological context is that there has to be news—certainly every day, but more and more, every hour. News organizations are thus placed in the difficult position of having to say something every day. There is time to fill on the air; there is space to fill on the web page. The absurdity of this is seen best when projected into a different genre. Could you imagine a history of the Civil War written with the requirement that every day—perhaps every hour—be given equal space on the page?

It would be novel, but in the long run not sustainable, for a news organization to simply confess, “Nothing happened today that’s worth your attention.” As we know, what happens instead is that we get news about celebrities and non-events—most of which seem to involve pictures recently taken—and idiotic lifestyle stories—most of which relate to who is fat, who is thin, who gets to decide, and how those people’s judgments are questionable, wrong, invalid, or offensive. Of course when it’s time to read the news, I do often think, “That’s stupid,” but then too often I think instead, “I wonder what that’s about.” That is, rather than identifying the stupid I absorb the stupid.

(Incidentally, my first thoughts about this sort of a mismatch were in reflecting on the field of biblical studies. There is a steady flow of young academics who need publications, and steady flow of publishing houses that need new titles, but a somewhat less steady flow of new ideas. I think we avoid this for the most part in linguistics, because our subject matter is so large, though we certainly run into different problems.)

A second insight has been building up more gradually—possibly because I have been slow to recognize the situation, or possibly because the problem is becoming more serious—and that is that news reporting is becoming more about the news itself, and less about reality. For instance, in the recent death in police custody incident and subsequent unrest in Baltimore, there was far more reporting about reporting, than reporting of actual fact. So we don’t have a story about a Walgreens being burnt down we have reporting about how the burning of the Walgreens was being reported, or not being reported. And this is taken to be an indicator of social concern—as if the media outlets have ever been institutions of any moment, rather than cesspools of the most the outrageous pabulum that can be discovered on any given day.

(Though even as I write this, there was one occasion when media reporting on media was a lot of fun. In the 2008 Democratic primary, in the run up to the South Carolina primary, there was a news story on about how black South Carolinian women were being forced to choose whether to vote their race or their sex—i.e., between the white female Hillary Clinton and black male Barrack Obama. This was such a monumentally stupid thing to say that the next day the headline was how much criticism CNN had received over the story. Many of the comments appreciated the irony that CNN—a putatively liberal news establishment—was depicting the voting decisions of black women as a matter of demographic allegiance, whereas white men had the same putative dilemma in choosing between a white female and a black male, and yet were not being represented as having to make their decision on those grounds.)

This is related to the third insight, which is that the news seems more and more to be driven by demographic angles. After the recent church shooting there were comparisons between reporting on the burning of black churches and the burning of the Walgreens—which, I am led to infer, is somehow a prototypically white establishment. There were stories about how when white people kill people it’s “just” mental illness, whereas when black people kill people… something else, which I don’t recall. There were meta-meta-stories about whether a shooting in a black church should be a story about violence against black people or a story about violence against Christian people. I do not recall anyone advocating that it should be a story about violence against people.

Nor is it a mystery how or why this demographic approach came about. In describing the present media context, I cannot think of a more important word than “clickbait.” If there is a shooting in a black church, then I can be relied upon to read one news story about it. But if there is a controversy over how the shooting is reported, then I can be relief upon to read many more of those stories than just one. Advertising revenue is driven by impressions and clicks. Certainly sex is the best way to attract attention—it cannot be a coincidence that the word “topples” has become ubiquitous in headlines—but inciting ugly tribal feelings is surely the second best way. I suspect that in news organizations this is discussed openly as a means of generating revenue.

This is of course not without effect in the way that people editorialize. I am somehow able to believe simultaneously that attacking straw men has always been a feature of editorials, and that we are sinking to a new low. Perhaps previously writers engaged in the practice out of intellectual laziness, whereas now it is a matter of profit as well. In the past a Republican might paint a Democrat as a communist rather than engaging with his/her ideas, but now surely it is also the best way to get clicks from your Republican readership. This is seen in two respects. First, it is certainly more advantageous to report on fringe characters than to report on typical people. If some Democrat can be found who wants to abolish private property, or some Republican who wishes to grind the bones of the poor to bake his bread, then that person will certainly be located by the news media. (I have heard firsthand accounts of television news people interviewing people one after another to find someone willing to say something controversial.) In this first instance at least the straw man is real. It used to be that putting a microphone in the face of the biggest idiot you could find was the exclusive purview of Jerry Springer, but his ratings were too good for the news media to refrain from imitating his methods.

But it seems more often that editorialists pursue a second route, in arguing against what everybody really knows that those evil people actually believe. Thus if an urban black community wants a more accountable police force, then everybody really knows that those people just don’t want there to be laws. If a farmer on the U.S.–Mexico wants existing immigration laws to be enforced, then everybody really knows that he’s just a slobbering racist. As a reader of the news, I am left with the impression that this is really what Republicans and Democrats actually believe. If I have never met anyone who espoused either of those “real” views, then that just goes to show how good those evil people are at hiding their real agenda.

Now this is not to suggest that politicians and political organizations are never actually sneaky. Gun rights advocates oppose background checks for the same reason that abortion rights activists oppose parental notification laws; either policy in itself is entirely reasonable, but also restricts a certain practice (abortion or gun ownership), which to a certain extent stigmatizes that practice. (That is also, of course, why gun control advocates promote background checks and pro-life activists promote parental notification laws.) What’s really strange about the news is that everybody knows how the game works—or if they don’t, I just explained it in one sentence, so how hard can it be to get the word out?—and yet no one acknowledges it. And so political theater takes on the character of a magic show, in which performers and audience alike understand that nothing is really happening, but are willing to suspend disbelief for the event.

As a result of these things, I find that even when I don’t read the news, I am not noticeably less well informed about world events. Complex situations like the annexation of Crimea a year ago, or the rise of the Islamic State further back, cannot be appreciated in the least from the trickle of incoherent narrative that the news media reports. Even with hindsight it is difficult to understand complex events. I can’t say how many times I’ve tried to piece together the business between the Serbs, Croats, Albanians, and Kosovars. I always give up, either in trying to keep straight in my head all the religions, ethnicities, and languages of the respective groups, or when the history of recriminations and counter-recriminations stretches back to before World War I. And I am still not sure which faction of the mess in Egypt I ought to support.

And the final result is that I am considering giving up the news altogether, and learning about world events either from more solid sources less frequently, or perhaps even only as they relate to me and to my friends more immediately. I cannot but think that this will make me less stupid.


McCandless turned back down the road and squinted. He thought he could see the truck in the distance but was not certain. It might’ve just been a heat shimmer where he thought the truck should be. He knelt to the spigot to drink and spat out the first hot mouthful. Then the water ran cool and he drank for a long time. He took off his hat and wet his hair. He splashed some on his neck and back but his back was already soaked and water felt no different there from sweat.

Around the front of the station a boy sat in a faded uniform and overlarge hat. The boy held his head awkwardly and did not meet McCandless’s gaze when he spoke.

—Good afternoon.

—Good afternoon, mister. We ain’t got no gas today.

—That’s all right. This a mechanic’s shop?

—Sure is. But we ain’t got no gas to give you.

—Don’t need gas, need a mechanic. Got a truck needs work. Mechanic around?

—Gas truck comes Mondays, might be gas then.

—Maybe it’s closed on account of Sunday.


McCandless waited for him to say more but the boy’s head just drifted off.

—Your father the owner?


—He around?

—No sir, he’s off to the meeting. Be back at sundown.

—All right. What’s that there? Cafe?


McCandless paused but could not think of what more to say.

—Good day to you.

—Good day.

He crossed the road and set off toward the cafe some hundreds of yards down the road. His legs had stiffened for having stopped at the spigot and he covered the distance slowly.

He entered the cafe and took off his hat. His eyes were immediately useless. The bell jingled a second time as the door shut. Tinny honky tonk music came from the left and he turned his head that way. The air was chilled and he felt the sweat on his body.

—Howdy stranger.


—Warm day. Fit to fry an egg if you wanted.

McCandless winced a reply.

—Been walkin’?

—Few hours. Truck broke down.

—What can I do for you?

McCandless considered a moment.

—Well I need a mechanic. Don’t seem like there’s one of those around.

—Not on a Sunday, no.

—They make any exceptions?

—Not likely to. Anyhow he’s off at a revival meeting. Won’t be back before dark.

—Maybe I talked to his son at the station.

—Get much out of him?


—No, wouldn’t expect to. He’s not quite right in the head.

—I had a thought like that.

—Go on have a seat. You look like you could use a drink.

But McCandless hesitated so he said

—Drink what you want, water’s free.

—Thank you.

He sat in a booth and held the wet glass in his hand.

—Been walking then? Where’d you come from?

—Hour or two down the road. Car trouble.

—So you said. Yessir, that happens. Slight grade in these parts. Cars overheat afore folks knows whats happening.


—Well tomorrow’s your first chance for a mechanic.

—Guess so. There a place to stay around here?

—Got some rooms upstairs.

—Yeah? What’d you take for them?

—Thems three dollar rooms.

—Three dollars.


—Got no other rooms? Got no one dollar rooms?

The man didn’t answer but worked his jaw. McCandless’s eyes worked now and he could see what kind of man the shopkeep was. Puffy pink face and watering eyes and an uncertain jaw. He saw him and knew he could take the room for a dollar or just plain take the room.

—Thems three dollar rooms, got em fixed up this year. New carpet, new beds.

—Don’t need no room. Haven’t slept in a bed since we left Oklahoma and don’t need to now. I’s just thinking about a bed on account of being tired from walking.

—If you’re in need we could work something out.

—Said I don’t need no room. Don’t need no Okie mussin’ up your new beds. Shouldn’t a said anything.

And then just to have something more to say he said

—What do you have to eat here?

—Got a 15 cent plate and a 25 cent plate. 25 cent plate has a double helping.

McCandless considered a moment the five cent discount and the likelihood of a true double helping.

—Can I fix a plate for you?

—Not now. I imagine I’ll have to get back to my partner.


—Yeah, left him with the truck. All we have’s there. Couldn’t leave it alone. Can’t say I have much of a plan without a mechanic.

The bell of the door chimed again but his back was to the door and he couldn’t see it.


—Duffy. How the hell’d you get here? Where’s the truck?

—Right out there. Drove here.

—Like hell you did.

—Go see yourself. Mind if I sit down?

—Suit yourself. Drink this.

And he handed him the water. Duffy drank it down and closed his eyes. The shopkeep spoke.

—Bring another?

—Yeah, give him another. I left this bastard with steam coming from the hood and black smoke coming out the exhaust. He’s like as not put it over the edge driving it this far.

—I told you the truck’s fine. Wasn’t nothing much wrong with it. Oil and coolant was all, and we had them in back.

—Changed the oil and put in coolant.


—Like hell. Let’s eat first cause I’m sure as hell not springing for the 25 cent plate if I find out you just wrecked the truck.

McCandless spit his toothpick on the ground and walked to the truck. He got in and started it up. It started rough but evened out. No smoke. No steam. He put it in gear and drove a circle.

—Well I’ll be damned.

He put it in the road and drove to the gas station. He turned it off, restarted it, and drove back.

—Running fine.

—Told you. Oil and coolant.

They went back to the cafe and got coffee.

—Okay, miracle worker, you’ve had your fun. How’d you fix it?

—You go to hell if you don’t wanna listen. Changed the oil. Added coolant.

—Sure you did.

—Sure did.

—How’d you do it?

—How d’you think I did it? Ain’t you never changed oil before?

—Sure I have.


McCandless’s eyes narrowed and he set his hands on the table.

—What do you think the temperature is out there? Hundred?

—It’s a hundred and ten if it’s a hundred.

—I agree with you there. How long we been driving?

—Since dawn.

—Shopkeep says there’s a slight grade in these parts. Makes engines overheat.

—Sounds like what happened to us.

—What do you figure to be the hottest part of the car?

—Engine I guess.

—And how hot’s that?

Duffy looked aside impatiently.

—I don’t know. Hot.

—Damn hot.

—Damn hot.

—And how bout that oil all sloshing around in that engine? How hot’s that do you think?

—Damn hot too.

—I’d say so. So’d that oil burn your hands any draining it out?

Duffy’d understood his point and sat with his jaw set and looked straight at McCandless. He spoke slowly.

—No it didn’t.

—You didn’t change no oil in that truck. What’d you tell me you did for?

—I did change the oil, damn it. You drove the truck.

—I drove it but I didn’t see what you did to it.

—Well how’d it get fixed then?

—I don’t know.

Duffy considered a moment.

—Here, look at my hands.

He offered his hands and McCandless took them. He considered them a long time, turning them over. Two knuckles skinned on his right hand. Oil stain on the palm and all around the fingers. He could see the dust and the sand where Duffy’d tried to get the oil off rubbing his hands in the dirt.


Duffy took his hands back and sipped his coffee. McCandless looked at the table and was silent for a time and then spoke.

—Well. Doesn’t prove nothing. I don’t suppose I need to get worked up over some Okie ditch-digger’s tall tale. Glad the truck’s fixed, anyhow.

McCandless took a sip of coffee and looked to move out. Duffy had not moved.

—Well damn you, McCandless. Don’t think you’ve called me a liar before today.

—Cool off, never said you was a liar.

—Like hell you didn’t.

Duffy again sat still and McCandless at length acknowledged that it was his turn to speak.

—Well if I did I didn’t mean nothing by it.

—I don’t care about that. Forget I said it. Just.

Duffy worked his mouth and looked like a kid forced to make nice after a fight.

—The oil was lukewarm.

McCandless looked him in the eye.

—I’m prepared to forget you said that.

—To hell with what you think. You believe or don’t believe what you want. I was there. The goddamn engine oil was lukewarm. There’s nothing more to it.

Silence again.

—I’m sorry I called you a liar.

—I said I didn’t care about that.

—No. I’m sorry cause I knew you was telling the truth and I just didn’t wanna think about it. I saw your hands myself.

—Well. Thanks, I guess.

The men sat and drank their coffee and did what they could to smooth things over. Then things were smoothed over and they just sat and thought. Duffy was silent and McCandless looked uncomfortable.

Duffy got up and the door bell clinged as he went out. A minute or two passed and the door clinged again and he sat down and put his fingers in his ice water.

—Engine hot?

—Burned my hand.

—Check the oil?

—Nope. Imagine it’s as hot as the engine though.

They sat some more and McCandless looked around the cafe. His eyes rested on each booth and he inventoried the contents of each: the salt, the pepper, the Tabasco, the napkins, the menu. He ran his fingers along the edge of the table and felt the grain of the wood through the varnish.

—Don’t seem like a dream.

—No it don’t.

—Seems real as anything. Course in a dream anything seems real.

—No, dreams is different. In a dream things don’t make sense and you just accept it. Like this would be a cafe and also the house I grew up in at the same time, and it just would be even if it didn’t make sense. This don’t feel like that.

—Can’t remember having a dream neither where you talk about whether it’s a dream.

—Well, I’m real anyhow.

—So’m I.

—Well I guess that settles it then.

—So where do we go from here? Call it a miracle and just get back out on the road?

—Miracle. Lukewarm engine oil’s not exactly Jesus Christ feeding the five thousand.

—That mean it can’t happen?

McCandless thought about this question.

—Well I ain’t a religious man and haven’t known you to be. Seems like for a miracle there’s gotta be faith.

—Don’t get to church much but sounds about right.


McCandless waited for words to come to him and when he did speak he spoke slowly and with effort.

—Thing is, it’s just so stupid.

—How d’you mean?

—Well two guys goin’ to California to pick fruit ain’t exactly the Israelites bein’ chased by Pharoah. And cold engine oil ain’t exactly parting the Red Sea. But even then… But the thing’s so stupid. It’s more a mistake than a miracle.

McCandless sat thinking a while and then spoke.

—You read much?

—I pick up a comic or a Zane Grey.

—You know how sometimes you read those things and it’s a wild west story and they’re talking about trucks or cattle or something. And the guy’s writing about something and just gets it wrong cause he’s not a cowboy at all, he’s just some jackass writer living in New York or San Francisco or something.


—Well that’s what this feels like. No goddamned deeper meaning to it. Just feels like a mistake.

Duffy thought about this.

Mistake. Whose mistake?

—I don’t know that. It’s just what it feels like.

The men sat and thought for a time. The shopkeep had been silent this while but finally spoke.

—Now I don’t want to butt in where it’s not my business. I heard what you boys been sayin and I believe what you said, both of you. Now I just think—

He stopped talking so the men turned slightly toward him.

—I just think that you two got out of a spot of trouble and ain’t any the worse for it. And. And if something don’t make sense, well then maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.

McCandless considered this a moment and spoke.

—Well, you got me there. Can’t say we’re worse for the wear how this turned out. Bit a magic engine oil’s probably not worth the half-day we’ve lost over it now.

The shopkeep was not a man of substance in the town and McCandless’s response encouraged him.

—And it seems to me that you can get to thinkin about anything and get worked up about it. Why this. Why that. Fella drive himself crazy if he do too much of it. Why’d you set off for this town not the last town? Why’d the mechanic have to be at revival? Why’d you come here not wantin to eat nothin? Fella go crazy thinkin’ ’bout all that.

McCandless raised his head to meet the shopkeep’s eyes and spoke slowly.

—What did you say?

—Said a man’d drive himself crazy asking every why and wherefore he could think of. Any number of reasons for any number of things in this world. Can’t figure em all out if you wanted to, and who wants to?

—You asked me why I came here in the first place.

—Sure, why not?

McCandless fixed his eyes on a spot on the floor and was silent. Duffy looked uncomfortable and spoke.

—He was lookin’ for a mechanic. We needed to find a mechanic, that’s why he come.

—No there wasn’t no mechanic here.

—Well how’d you know that?

—Mechanic’s son told me he was gone. First place I came to I knew that.

—The kid at the station? I drove up askin bout you and all he’d tell me is that there was no gas today and it’d come Monday. Same thing over and over no matter what I said.

—Yeah, that was the kid. Told me his father was off the whole day.

—Well, but what’s that mean? Who’s gonna believe a kid like that?

McCandless lifted his gaze from the floor and met Duffy’s eyes.

—Well I did believe him. Even an idiot kid knows if his dad’s around or not.

—So you came here to sit down. What’s the big deal?

—But why’d I do that? Walked for two hours in the sun and thought I’d walk a bit more? No mechanic there wasn’t nothing more to do today but stay with the truck.

—Maybe you just wanted a bite to eat.


Duffy turned to the shopkeep.

—No I tried to sell him lunch and he wouldn’t take it without you.

Duffy turned back to McCandless.

—Well you made a mistake. Don’t matter none. We’re here now.

McCandless drew out the word as if doubting it.

I made a mistake.

—Sure you did. What’s it matter?

—Yeah, what’s it matter. And what’s the oil matter? And any of it?


McCandless raised his voice.

—Well it’s a bit different if it’s a mistake and you don’t get burned from the engine oil or it’s a mistake and you’re not making your own damned decisions.

Duffy turned aside and did not speak. McCandless was silent a time and then spoke loudly and with the fluency of strong emotion.

—Hell, I don’t have to understand everything. You open up a radio and it’s clear there’s something there, even if you don’t know what it is. Damn thing works after all, and whether you understand it or not the thing works and so you know there’s a system to it. You look at life and there’s a system to that too. Only now I’m looking at this thing and there’s nothing to it. Engines not heatin up their oil with the engine runnin on a hot day and me makin a decision I can’t account for. What’s the goddamned thing mean? Don’t know if I’m gonna turn West and find myself back in Oklahoma or pull out my wallet to pay for this and find it full of cash. Or maybe the truck’s not there or maybe it’ll smoke out the front and shoot steam out the exhaust pipe when I start it. Goddamn, a man don’t have to know everything but if he can’t make sense of anything, what can he do?

McCandless and Duffy sat in silence for a time. Each drank another cup of coffee. They paid the shopkeep and went out to the car and drove out of town. The sun was already setting but they drove on two hours after dark and pulled off the road and slept in the sand. The sun woke them in the morning and they continued on their way, silent before the world.

Worrying about Heaven

In church we are going through a video curriculum by Tim Keller, on the subject of grace (Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything). I am a fan of Keller in general; I have heard some sermons and both Amy and I got a lot out of his book The Meaning of Marriage. This DVD series has been rubbing me the wrong way from from the first session, however. Church services not being the best places to express these disagreements, here we go…

Keller is working from an understanding of the Gospel that I think is fairly typical in evangelical and Reformed circles. He says that there are basically three options in life: the Gospel, the irreligious way of rejecting the Gospel, and the religious way of rejecting the Gospel. The Gospel is that God has accepted us graciously, of His own accord, and quite independently of anything that we have done or can do. The irreligious way of rejecting the Gospel is to simply not believe in that: atheism, agnosticism, or whatever other -ism you please. Then finally the religious way of rejecting the Gospel is to ignore God’s gracious act of accepting us by trying to earn our own salvation through doing good works.

Even as I write that out, it’s seems so obvious from an evangelical Christian perspective that I’m a little surprised that I disagree with it. Part of it is, certainly, that one of Keller’s major applications is to challenge people about their reasons for trying to obey God and do good works: are you doing that to try to win God’s approval—or to manipulate Him into doing what you want—or are you doing it simply out of a renewed inner nature? I think that leads people into endless cycles of self-doubt regarding their own sincerity, which is a nasty thing to do to a person. Anyone in this world making an effort toward good works and sanctification should, in my opinion, be patted on the back rather than smacked down with an accusation of having impure motives.

Moreover, I wonder whether any of us ever do anything for a single reason. I don’t take my kids for a walk, or to a museum, without intending to have a good time myself. I don’t even eat a meal without “mixed motives” of desiring fellowship, needing nourishment, and the sensual enjoyment of the food itself. Things can certainly be done for the wrong reasons, but I doubt even then there is a single motivation. So then, to hold anyone hostage to purity of intention seems, if not mean-spirited, then at least deeply unfair. That’s a personal reaction. But being who I am, there of course needs to be a more reasoned critique.

To begin with, I wonder whether many people are in fact concerned about earning their salvation—which, for now, let us take to refer to ending up in Heaven rather than Hell. I think that this was very much the concern of Martin Luther, who launched us down this path. But I suspect that on the whole most people are not tortured by the incompatibility between their sins and the holiness of God. Instead, I would imagine that most people are indifferent to the consequences of their sin—and I think that is true of Christians and non-Christians alike.

But this reading goes against the grain of the Reformation-influenced understanding of the Gospel, which contrasts a works-based righteousness that comes from obedience to the Law, with a faith-based righteousness that comes through the work of Christ. The message of the Gospel then becomes something like, “Stop trying to earn approval by obeying God, and try instead to accept that God has accepted you, on the basis of Christ’s work.” Suffice it to say that such a conception of salvation does not lend itself to a particularly robust theology of justification.

Almost as an aside, I was impressed by a Catholic critique I heard one time, that this approach to justification merely replaces the insecurity people feel over having done enough good works, to an insecurity over whether they believe sincerely enough. I believe that this critique is correct to dissociate the feeling of insecurity from a particular theological belief. I have often said to myself, and I believe I have said to groups, that if you’re worried about earning your salvation, the problem isn’t your theology, it’s your relationship with your father.

The alternative to this conception of the Gospel is to understand that Christ came to perfectly fulfill the vocation of Israel, and that by being incorporated into Christ, we become part of the true Israel, the true people of God. Books are written about this, but a few adjustments to our understanding of key terms can be mentioned. The key starting point is to observe that all of the places that Paul discusses salvation through faith in Christ, apart from the works of the Law (Romans, Galatians, Ephesians) are places where he is explicitly concerned with the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. So the question is not the means by which we are justified—obviously, the people of God will be justified by God—but whether the badge of membership in the people of God is the works of the Law (such as circumcision of kosher restrictions) or faith in Jesus Christ. This conception also helps us to understand why Paul is so positive about the Law, while being so negative about Israel: because it is not the Law that failed, but Israel that failed to keep the Law. I find this argument basically convincing, though I would not expect this paragraph alone to convince anybody.

But if that conception of justification is accepted for moment, then it becomes easy to understand Luther’s preoccupation with the (supposed) dichotomy between faith and works as a product of his own background as a monk and—one cannot help but observe—as a child of a very demanding father. Luther really could have had that emotional baggage to deal with; I don’t think that most people do.

As I mentioned briefly, salvation is often equated in evangelical circles with justification, which is in turn associated with getting into Heaven. (I will assume in faith that we are all on the same page in believing in the Resurrection, with Heaven being understood in the Revelation 21 sense of God-with-humanity-on-Earth.) That is a very narrow conception of salvation, because it neglects the spiritual formation of individuals. We come to new life completely ill prepared for new life, and completely unable to live the kinds of lives that we need to live. Apart from an emotional high at the beginning of faith, sanctification is a long, hard slog. I like to imagine my assurance of justification as a free ticket to participate in a marathon: it’s wonderful to be accepted, but the truth is that I’ve never run more than two miles at a time in my life.

I’m not worried about going to Hell: I’m worried about going to Heaven. My natural self-absorption make me an ideal resident of Hell. But I have none (or, shall I say to avoid false modesty, far too little) of the virtue, character, wisdom, knowledge, and graciousness to fit me for Heaven. Let us set aside the grotesque parodies of Dante, and assume that somehow at Death everything wicked in me evaporates, and that I am saved, though through fire. Even a generous assessment of the state of my soul suggest that what will be left is a cinder with a name tag.

And this is of course of course to say nothing of the work we have to do here on Earth, and how we need to be formed properly before we can accomplish it.

(These concepts are described very clearly in Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart and, in a less focused presentation, The Divine Conspiracy. A reference in the latter lead me to A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law, which is probably the best book on spiritual formation I have read so far—I hope to review it soon in this space. A memorably provocative claim in The Divine Conspiracy is that Christians who trust Christ’s death for their salvation while making no effort to put His teachings into practice, act as if Christ were an idiot who didn’t actually know very much about life.)

To bring this to a conclusion then, I certainly acknowledge that striving to obey God can arise out of a manipulative or transaction understanding of salvation—though I do not believe that this is anywhere near as prevalent as is commonly assumed. I believe moreover that there is an entirely appropriate emotional reaction of personal inadequacy when we consider the high calling of Christ—as expressed, say, in the Sermon on the Mount, or even in one of Paul’s throwaway lines on how we should behave. The feeling of inadequacy comes from genuine inadequacy. The negative emotion is of course offset by Christ’s finished work, and the continuing encouragement that we have both from Scripture and the community of faith. All of it needs to come together to motivate us to continue in good works for the reason that Paul endorses in Romans 2:7, to seek glory, honor, and immortality.

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