pre⋅ténse

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.

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The best fail video of 2016—perhaps of all time

This was the highlight of the internet for me in 2016.

Why? In the first place, because it’s funny to watch people fail. That’s why “fail videos” are a thing. And this is about a big a failure as you can get. But I think there is more to it that just that.

On July 4, 2016, the day before I saw this video, I was in a small town in the American Midwest celebrating Independence Day with my family. The main event for us was a small-time magician performing with his wife. We had a great time. He was great with kids; our kids got to participate; they got to see a dozen or so magic tricks. Needless to say, my brain was relatively unoccupied, and so I had a lot of opportunities to reflect upon the cognitive gymnastics that make a magic show possible. It’s a strange event at first glance, because we all know that the laws of physics are what they are, and that the most we can hope for is to be effectively tricked. The key is a suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, which creates a kind of intermediate world where we can be entertained: believing and not believing at the same time.

At one point, with his wife in the box waiting to get cut in half, our magician apologized to the audience for having forgotten some important props, and and ran to his van to get them. Now, the size of the venue and the quality of the show to that point suggested to me that he had in fact forgotten his props. But later his wife popped out of the box wearing a different outfit, which made me wonder if it wasn’t some of kind of trick for buying time. I’m still not sure which is true, which makes it that much more enjoyable.

This applies all the more to danger. At one point, our magician did the trick where he chops a carrot in half with a small guillotine, and then puts a kid’s hand in the guillotine and… somehow it turns out okay. (Actually, when you put it like that, the importance of showmanship becomes clear: without showmanship, how could it be entertaining for nothing to happen?) Now, I could see the magician futzing with the various blades of the guillotine (which is of course the only way it can work), as he shouted about how dangerous the trick was. I also saw him mute his lapel mic and whisper to his young volunteer that there was no real danger, which was sweet.

This was my cognitive context when I saw the link to this video.

The video can still bring me to tears. But why is it funny? A few weeks ago, while attending an awards ceremony in a second language (which is only slightly more boring than attending an awards ceremony in one’s native language), I gave this some thought. Here is what I came up with.

I believe all of most humor involves a reversal of expectations. There’s a study that claims that the joke below is the funniest joke in the world.

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

It’s funny, but I’m not sure it’s actually the funniest joke in the world; I think it was judged to be so because they took the trouble to ask people from around the world, and all or most of them found it to be funny. (You can think a bit about what would make a joke successful cross-culturally. It doesn’t rely on verbal humor, etc.)

Now, you could argue that the joke is funny because it’s funny to laugh at the surviving hunter, who misunderstands the instruction. But I think the joke is actually on the hearer of the joke, who doesn’t realize that there’s more than one interpretation to “First, let’s make sure he’s dead” until the joke ends. Many jokes work this way, like the one-liner Groucho Marx used in a movie to address his troops, “Some of you might not make it, and the rest of you definitely won’t.” The default assumption is that survival is the norm, though of course this is not logically necessary. And one more example I saw on Facebook recently:

An old man was getting close to death. He asked his young wife, “When I die, will you re-marry?” “Yes,” she said. “Will you cook him mantu?” he asked. “No,” she said. “Why not?” he asked. “Because he doesn’t like mantu.”

The punchline of the joke causes a reversal of expectations: that the wife is considering not just the potential of remarriage, but actually has the replacement in mind already.

(Reversal of expectations is also the key element of dramatic irony, so this has ramifications into greater topics than humor.)

So then, as a first step to explaining the humor of the magician’s video, I’ll point out that enjoying a magic show that shows an ostensibly dangerous situation involves these three real-world beliefs or commitments:

  1. A magic show is a safe place.
  2. The magician is pretending that there is danger.
  3. I decide to consciously suspend my belief in (1), and play along with (2), in order to have fun.

These all follow from my experience of a silly small-town magic show.

When the idiot magician impales the host’s hand on a nail, all of the assumptions are reversed instantaneously. We learn that in fact:

  1. The magic show is a dangerous place.
  2. The magician was oblivious to the very real danger of the situation.
  3. My original make-believe was not make-believe at all; my make-believe came true.

The sudden reversal of expectation is, I believe, what makes it a funny video. There’s further nuance to explore. For instance, the magician is “pretending” that there is a dangerous situation, while simultaneously assuring the host that he is in control. In fact, the magician’s assurances show only a lack of self-awareness, and he’s not in control at all. It’s also worth considering what exactly counts as a reversal of expectation; it’s probably more complex than mere logical negation. But this nails it down to my own satisfaction, more or less.

Books I read in 1389

For the beginning part of this year I was still reading books that I had started and not completed before I adopted the discipline of finishing every book I started. I believe that Homilies on the Gospel of John is the last book I had started but not finished.


  • The Bookseller of Kabul—this book is worth reading as an illustration of how not to engage with foreign cultures. It is ridiculously bad; the author doesn’t even make an effort to see things from Afghans’ point of view. Quite typical of the period.
  • Conceptual Foundations of Teaching Reading—I remember this was really excellent and data-driven. The best part of the book comes at the end, where the author reproduces the results of national standardized reading tests that show that—believe it or not!—none of the changes in reading pedagogy has really moved the needle on reading ability. Frankly,  I think that this is because “literacy” is described in such expansive terms about processing, comparing, and synthesizing information, that it’s basically become redundant with terms such as “intelligence” or “cultivation.”
  • Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach—This was valuable; and the first edition was much better than the second.
  • Developing Adult Literacy
  • Homilies on the Gospel of John—This was Chrysostom, but (perhaps because I was sort of anxious to read through it and get on to something else) I don’t recall taking much away from it.
  • Hexameron—The science and even the understanding of the natural world is… dated. But the exultation with which Basil glories in the wonders of Creation can’t be gainsaid.
  • Second Treatise of Government—This fell apart for me when Locke remarked, almost as an aside, that if someone stole his property, then he (Locke) would be justified in killing that man, but not in taking his property back. It’s like one of those moments in math when you come up with 2 = 0, and you know that something has gone wrong somewhere, even if you don’t know exactly where.
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  • Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales
  • My Grandfather’s Son—What struck me about Clarence Thomas’s autobiography was that race forms so much of his personal experience, however much he tries to keep race out of his jurisprudence.
  • Bright Against the Storm—This book and the one following were written by my friend Ari Heinze. I enjoyed them, and I don’t think they’ve be received as they might be.
  • Ashes of Our Joy
  • The Turkish Jester—I enjoy a good Mullah Nasruddeen story, but I don’t think I understood a single one of these jokes.
  • Dracula—This is such a terrible book. It was so painful to read I was angry most of the time that I was reading. What kind of person writes out an entire chapter in German-accented dialect, because zat’s ze vay ze character speaks? It was so difficult to get through this book I can’t even say.
  • Stones to Schools—Of course this now needs to be read in concert with Jon Krakauer’s book.
  • A world without poverty—There’s probably a honeymoon period after winning a Nobel Prize where it seems like you can really make a diffference.  I think Muhammad Yunus was going through some of that here. A great man, though.
  • Working together for literacy
  • Handbook of the International Phonetic Association
  • The New Testament and the People of God
  • Persian Grammar
  • A Man For All Seasons—Of course I heard Paul Scofield’s voice as I read the play.
  • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
  • Jane Eyre
  • First on the Moon—This was a lot of fun. I was getting into space stuff again with the kids.
  • Henry VIII
  • A Preface to Paradise Lost—Helpful on many levels.
  • A Student’s Guide to Literature
  • The Canterbury Tales—In the original. I need to write some blog posts about these.
  • The Well-Trained Mind
  • The Remains of the Day—Probably not as good a book as the movie was a movie.
  • Notes from the Underground—For all the hype, I didn’t get much out of this. I probably need to read it again.
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles
  • A Journal of the Plague Year—Very interesting and engaging. Defoe paints a vivid picture. (It was hard to believe he hadn’t actually witnessed the events.)
  • The Jungle Book—I enjoyed this a lot.  “I will remember what I was” is one of the great lines in English literature, in my opinion.
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel—Lots of swashbuckling fun, but…
  • I Will Repay— …why would you write a sequel without the main character from the original. I expected to read the series but six years later this book was disappointing enough that I haven’t read the third.
  • Biko—Biko the man was admirable. Biko the book was somewhat less so. It was too journalistic and conspiratorial for me (especially at the end). For me, the melodrama detracted from the seriousness of the events.

Books I read in 1388

Midway through the solar Persian year of 1388, I started keeping tracks of the books that I read (in connection with this discipline).  Motivated party by nostalgia, partly by a desire to see what stuck with me, and partly by pretentiousness, I’ve decided to go over my lists. This list begins in alphabetical order, because I only started keeping track midway through 1388, so I listed all the books I had read up to that point.


  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  • A Child’s History of England—My first voluntary Dickens book. Charming; probably whiggish.
  • Diggers in the Earth—surprisingly fascinating.
  • Frankenstein—Great literature; so much more than a monster story.
  • Gulliver’s Travels
  • Ivanhoe—Very good.
  • Little Women—Sweet… treacly sweet.
  • Orthodoxy
  • Peter and Wendy
  • Phastastes—My first foray into George MacDonald. I reread it recently because I couldn’t remember the plot. But there is no plot, just George MacDonald’s fertile imagination.
  • The Pilgrim’s Progress—Heavy-handed moralizing, terrible fiction. My first intimation that C.S. Lewis and I have different taste.
  • Pride and Prejudice—Not as good as the 1996 BBC original. 😉
  • Robinson Crusoe—Great story; difficult prose.
  • The Sign of the Four—Holmes! So I was in my late 20s before I got into this.
  • Sketch of Handel and Beethoven
  • A Study in Scarlet
  • Thomas Wingfold, Curate—Really wonderful moral novel.
  • The Time Machine
  • On the Incarnation—I know I had read this before, so this was a (fully justified!) re-reading.
  • The Resurrection of the Son of God—Intellectually formative. I read about a hundred pages and ordered the earlier two books in the series.
  • Kingdom and Promise
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?—Great popular-level discussion of philosophical questions.
  • Language documentation
  • Henry VI, Part 2—This is when I decided to finish up Shakespeare’s histories. There’s a reason you don’t hear much about Henry VI.
  • Henry VI, Part 3
  • Life of Anthony
  • Tricks of the Trade—Provides wonderful intuition about qualitative research.
  • The Spirit of the Disciplines—Easily my favorite Willard book; far better than The Divine Conspiracy.
  • Cultures & Organizations—Principal component analysis of cultural variables; what’s not to love?
  • A Practical View—This book, written by William Wilberforce, sounds like one I’d like to read. I can’t remember a thing about it.
  • Descent into hell—My first Charles Williams book. Mind-bender! I’d like to re-read it.
  • Richard III—My reward for making it through the Henry VI’s.
  • Please Understand Me II—I don’t recall the merits of the book; I’m a big fan of Meyers-Briggs in general. (I’m a textbook INTJ.)
  • Now, Discover Your Strengths
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns—If his first wasn’t exploitative enough for you….
  • A Manual of Literacy for Preliterate Peoples
  • Descent into Chaos—Interesting subject matter, horrible analysis.
  • Emma
  • Silmarillion—Very difficult to care about.

A People’s History of the United States

I am a quarter of the way through A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.  It’s a thought-provoking book. Here are some thoughts it’s provoked in me recently:

  • Surely there is a less intellectually painful way to expose myself to perspectives different to my own.
  • Why isn’t the Kindle book progress meter moving? (I believe I have celebrated each and every change in percentage.)
  • How could this book have received a second reading, let alone a second edition?
  • Can I get through it more quickly if I jot off a quick review now, rather than waiting till I finish it?

Here’s what I like about the book: it uncovers the dirty laundry; it puts a spotlight on communities that weren’t in control of the political process. It is a good reminder that there was no golden age. The battle between good and evil has always raged; there has always been a need for a prophetic voice; men and women have always needed to take sides.

What I don’t like about the book is the hamfisted historical and political analysis. Zinn imputes malevolent motives to historical actors as consistently as if it were a methodological imperative. His narrative becomes ridiculous. One reviewer puts it well, “The ironic effect of such portraits of rulers is to rob ‘the people’ of cultural richness and variety, characteristics that might gain the respect and not just the sympathy of contemporary readers. For Zinn, ordinary Americans seem to live only to fight the rich and haughty and, inevitably, to be fooled by them.” (Michael Kazin; as quoted in the Wikipedia page.) Lack of depth isn’t the least of the book’s problems. He suggests that the Founding Fathers insisted on strong property rights so that they could force the poor to pay their debts. Anyone who’s spent time in a place where rule of law is weak will confirm: the rich and powerful don’t need laws to oppress the poor.

And the tragedy, of course, is that there is actual injustice in American history. There really isn’t a shortage of material. But instead a painstaking and careful examination of the facts, we have these ridiculous conspiratorial assertions, which would make Oliver Stone blush. The net effect—for me, anyway—is to cast doubt on the historical facts. And it’s just agony to read. It’s like being forced to listen to two unintelligent people who share identical views talk about politics.

So, 25%.


January 4, 2017: And I’m done!

I read the Kindle version, but I see from Amazon that the print book is 700-odd pages. And I felt every page. I was able to read much faster when I realized that this is not an academic book, or even a decent piece of journalism, where you would attend to the way the argument is presented, looking for logical fallacies, and paying special attention to what sorts of claims are made or not made. No. You just get through it—and, if you’re so politically inclined, be enraged by the Establishment.

I stand by the above statement: “It’s like being forced to listen to two unintelligent people who share identical views talk about politics.”

Zinn is comically biased. Just about every white male in the Establishment is either a frothing racist, or at best a good-natured coward. Union leaders receive a somewhat gentler treatment:

Black workers at this time found the National Labor Union reluctant to organize them.

Naturally, his perspective does not lend itself to subtle analyses:

One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.

If you’re not part of the top 1%, that’s you. (Readers of this blog with undoubtedly be familiar with my antipathy for property-holding, black, foreign-born, uneducated/unskilled people.) But don’t worry, because at the same time, the mass of Americans are good-hearted people who want there to be real change, and are right on the cusp of moving into hippie communes, if there were only someone to organize them.

There’s so much to say. But I’m confine it to this: it’s not even a good moral analysis. The most evil capitalist doesn’t expend any energy loathing the less-fortunate. The sin is one of neglect. Truly, I harbor no antipathy for any group of people on the planet. Good for me! But the question on Judgment Day will be whether I ever noticed their plight, and lifted a finger to help.

I’m not competent to assess many of the historical claims that Zinn makes. One stood out simply because I happen to know something about the timeline of antiballistic missile technology.

[George W. Bush] moved to increase the military budget, and to pursue the “Star Wars” program though the consensus of scientific opinion was that antiballistic missiles in space could not work, and that even if the plan worked, it would only trigger a more furious arms race throughout the world.

In fact, the system had been tested successfully in the late 90s, before Bush took office.

There’s no such thing as unbiased history, because all of history involves creating an narrative arc, which cannot be read directly from a sequence of historical facts. But one can do better or worse, and frank discussions about historical methodology go a long way to keeping things on the level. Zinn approaches none of this, of course. His aim is merely to provide a counterweight, a book biased in the opposite direction from how he perceives other books to be biased.

[Blah blah blah] That makes it a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction—so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people’s movements—that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.

It’s not that we’re trying to uncover the correct facts, or (granted a set of assumptions) come to the correct conclusions. It’s not even that previous histories suppressed facts, which we will now get out in the open. We’re just trying to get a book out there that will move the average of all history books slightly to the left. This reminded me of my critique of postmodern decision making from early last year.

Some years back I was forced to listen to some right-wing propaganda, which I described at the time as “intellectual waterboarding.” The term applies to reading this book as well. Reader beware: if you’re going to try to read a book from the other side of the political spectrum, choose carefully!

Contemporary Christian Music Industry Attains Incarnational Presence in Nation’s Elevators After Decades-Long Effort

Nashville, TN—The leading trade association for contemporary Christian music announced today that, after decades of relentless effort, they have finally succeeded in developing musical style appropriate to the elevator context.

Spokesperson Randall Jennings spoke from the headquarters of the recently renamed Christian Muzak Trade Association.

“The church has always had an incarnational presence in the world of music,” Jennings noted. “But times have changed. If you look at where the lost actually are, they’re not in music halls, or in cathedrals, [or in venues that assign the least importance to artistic merit]. They’re in elevators.”

“People are in elevators every day,” Jennings observes. “We’re using that cultural space to expose people to the Gospel at every level of society—literally.”

Contemporary Christian musicians have struggled for decades to produce the simple and inoffensive jingles that could gain them access to the exclusive world of elevator music. They view that presence as a key to Christian witness.

“Time was, you could rely on the church organist to reach people,” said Jennings, in apparent reference to such predecessors in cultural engagement as Johann Sebastian Bach. “These days, people don’t go for it. They want the least offensive and innovative music possible. They want the record executives to go out there and find the easy music for them. [And then they need it to be simplified again before it’s played on the radio.]”

The industry’s efforts have not been without criticism, however. “Some people have a real problem with Christian music being played alongside of [stripped down instrumental versions of] Celine Dion, Rod Stewart, or even Adele,” Jennings admits. “But isn’t that exactly where we need to be reaching people?”

A commitment to the elevator music genre has also meant that not everyone has found a place in the industry. That’s something that Seattle-based recording artist Josh Michaels has learned the hard way. Following a promising debut, his career faltered several years ago, after he included a fourth chord in his sophomore album.

“I guess it was a lesson in understanding what [recording executives say] audiences really want,” Michaels now says. “In my new album, I’m definitely sticking to just three chords. It’s actually mostly just pentatonic now.”

It’s too soon to tell whether Michaels can achieve his sought-after redemption in the industry, but optimistic observers have noted with approval his recent embrace of the synthesizer.

At CMTA headquarters, Jennings made clear that they won’t be resting on their laurels. “We’re not solidly established in elevators, but we’re not stopping there. We’ve hopes to make it into dentist’s waiting rooms. And one day, you might even hear Christian music when you’re on hold with the cable company. Onward and upward.”


The idea for this if-not-outright-meanspirited-then-certainly-close article came to me as I was enjoying Josh Garrel‘s wonderful new Christmas album, The Light Came Down (especially tracks 13 and 14), wondering how such a talented musician could not have a wider following. Best of luck to Josh and all the others out there pursuing music and discipleship to Christ in parallel!

The Moral Vision of the New Testament

Having finished The Moral Vision of the New Testament last week, I am in the familiar position of wanting to get some thoughts about the book down before the details slip from my memory, while also wanting to take more time to let the ideas percolate, while also being aware that the longer I delay, the less likely I will be to write anything at all.

This was my first Richard Hayes book, and I am certain that it won’t be my last. From everything I could gather, Hayes is a committed disciple of Christ, who engages credibly with the academic literature. I don’t know whether he identifies with evangelism, but something like evangelicalism certainly comes out in his writing, though with a few gestures toward liberal protestantism. (He is a minister in the United Methodist Church.) To call Hayes “and American N.T. Wright” would probably offend many people, however descriptively accurate the phrase might be.

First, I have to offer an appreciation of Hayes’s writing. It’s certainly not a given that intelligent academics write well. Hayes’s prose is a pleasure to read. It reads quickly, and he always uses the right word. (Or almost always: in 500-odd pages, there was one word I would question, though the quality his writing generally makes me question my own judgment.) Moreover, we get appropriate personal revelation, and amusing asides to boot. Example:

New Testament scholars are sometimes oddly resistant to the idea that Paul could have developed or even declined as a theological thinker. When the topic of pseudonymous composition arises, I like to ask my students whether all those albums issued under the name of Bob Dylan for the last fifteen years can possibly be the work of the same person who performed “Highway 61 Revisited.”

Hayes’s project is to think about how the Church can obtain ethical guidance for contemporary issues from the New Testament. To organize the task, he presents an admittedly simplified four-step procedure: careful exegesis of the New Testament texts, developing a synthesis of the texts (without papering over the diversity of the New Testament witnesses), the hermeneutical stage of interpreting the meaning of the synthesis in our time, and then finally the practical application of the New Testament’s teachings. The structure of the book follows the procedure proposed; the “practical” portion consists of Hayes’s reflection on several hot-button issues of the day (meaning, the mid-90s): violence, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, anti-Judaism and ethnic conflict, and abortion.

In addressing contemporary issues, Hayes recognizes that various Christian ethicists make use not only of Scripture, but also of Reason, Tradition, and Experience. I appreciate his comments on what these three sources contribute to the task of biblical interpretation.

I would propose the following minimal guideline: extrabiblical sources stand in a hermeneutical relation to the New Testament; they are not independent, counterbalancing sources of authority. In other words, the Bible’s perspective is privileged, not ours.

Immediately following this, Hayes admits that this may be a tricky thing to implement in practice. But I think he’s got things the right way round. Reason, Tradition, and Experience certainly influence the way we interpret Scripture—we are not disembodied intellects floating around in the ether—but they are not normative in the same way that Scripture is. I can acknowledge the role of Tradition in how I read the Scripture—as in “This is the traditional reading” or “I’ve always thought about it this way” or “I never thought about it that way”—without Tradition (for example) being a competing source of authority. I think this strikes the right balance between a naïve logical-positivistic hermeneutic (for want of a better term) and a post-modern the-interpretation-is-the-community-is-the-tradition hermeneutic.

The curious thing about this book is that Hayes uses liberal exegesis to come to conservative conclusions. (The imprecision of that sentence in no way detracts from its truth.) Exegetically, Hayes seems to adopt the intellectual fashionable tools of redaction criticism, and the irritating practice of attributing the New Testament texts to otherwise-unattested Christian communities, who chose (for their own reasons) to write in the names of the apostles. At the same time, however, he holds tightly to the authority of the texts, and comes to conclusions that could establish him (more or less) comfortably in the ranks of conservative social commentators. For the most part, this works, though I some objections below.

In his survey of New Testament texts, for instance, Hayes assumes that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke are actively revising the Markan material. He also assumes that the pastoral epistles were written by somebody other than Paul, under Paul’s name. To speak plainly, I bristled at these two claims.

I bristled personally, because my introduction to redaction criticism of the gospels, and to the various doubts about Pauline authorship, was in an undergraduate course in the New Testament during my undergraduate studies at a secular university. The tenor of the course was respectful, but the tenor of the textbook was anything but. It was written from a postmodern perspective: all of the documents were produced by communities, and any piddling discrepancy or difference in viewpoint was taken as evidence of violent conflicts between the apostles—or rather, of course, between the various communities claiming to write in the apostles’ names. (The textbook was called Understanding the Bible; one class period I suggested that the book might instead be called Misunderstanding the Bible.) Suffice to say, Hayes writes from an entirely different personal perspective. Whatever his reasons for following the scholarly trends, it’s evident that he is a committed disciple, and that he takes the inspiration of the New Testament canon seriously. So it was salutary for me to see these ‘newfangled’ ideas expressed by a committed Christian person.

I bristled intellectually, because I can’t understand the appeal of these proposals. Take the composition of the synoptic gospels as an example. The mainstream scholarly consensus is that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke revised Mark to suit their own perspective. Now I ask what different predictions this hypothesis generates, relative to the simpler hypothesis that in the 1st century, there was simply a way that the gospel was normally told, so that when three authors sat down to write up the story, it came out in a broadly similar way.

But instead of this, I am asked to believe that the various gospels were produced by communities of disciples, each with their own agendas, or at least their own pastoral needs. The very first question to ask is whether anyone has ever read a committee-written document, and then desired to read it a second time. Committees—communities—simply do not produce compelling documents. Remarkable documents are produced by remarkable individuals—conditioned by, but not constrained by, their communities.

But set that point aside. I ask what is gained intellectually if starting, say, from the gospel of Matthew, I posit the existence of a community of Christian disciples who needs and pastoral context that gave rise to the gospel of Matthew’s distinctive perspective on the life of Christ. Remember that no historical records of any of these communities exist. How then I can I know anything about this hypothetical community? Only by examining the distinctives of the gospel of Matthew. And how are those distinctives explained? By reference to the hypothetical community. If anyone reading this think that this amounts to an intellectual achievement, I’d like to get in touch with you to discuss an exciting business opportunity.

Nevertheless, once these hypothetical communities are spun into existence, they’re able to do quite a lot of work for us. Hayes accepts the idea that Matthew and John are basically anti-Jewish documents. Vexingly, he also acknowledges that Jesus and nearly every prominent Christian was Jewish. And he acknowledges that ‘Judaism’ was not a monolithic entity in the first century, and that Christianity cannot therefore be meaningfully be isolated from the various Judaisms of that time. But those acknowledgments don’t really amount to anything: there was such a thing as Judaism in the first century, and (the communities behind the gospels of) Matthew and John were against it. And if they were anti-Jewish, it must have been because they were being persecuted by Jews. (Why? Hayes doesn’t explain; presumably that’s the best excuse we can come up with for their behavior.) And if that’s the case, we can safely relegate their teaching to secondary status within the canon:

Because the statements of Matthew and John about the Jewish people originate in powerless communities under persecution, they bear the marks of pain and bitterness. They come out sounding like the indignant complaints of the righteous sufferer in the lament psalms. Such texts should be understood as cries of anguish that can be read with integrity only by a Christian community in a similar position of weakness and suffering. This guideline still does not justify the vituperative content of a text such as John 8, but it at least serves as a safeguard against the later appropriation of such a text by a powerful Christian community as a weapon against a weaker Jewish community. Our earlier discussion of violence becomes again pertinent here; the cross serves as a critical norm that governs Christian responses even—or especially—in the situation of persecution. In light of this norm, better patterns for the attitudes of a suffering community are offered in the Lukan narrative, where Jesus and Stephen, facing death, pray for the forgiveness of their persecutors (Luke 23:34, Acts 7:60); or again, we find a better pattern in Paul’s wish that he could be cut off from Christ for the sake of the Jewish people (Rom. 9:3). Here we see another reason why the positions of Luke and Paul on this issue are to be given greater normative weight than those of John and Matthew.

I repeat that I have no doubts of Hayes’s sincerity, and of his acceptance of the full canon of Scripture as authoritative. He also insists strongly that we must not form a canon within the canon. But I do question how all those beliefs can coexist with the idea that part of the canon was written by people who were sort of in a bad place at that moment, and whose (alleged) anti-Judaism can be safely put to one side. Some acknowledgment of even the possibility of a conflict would have been welcome.

While I’m ranting, I’ll say that I have very little sympathy for his treatment of the gospel of John. He interprets the gospel as anti-Jewish and proto-Marcionite, which is about as strange a reading of that gospel that I can imagine. He interprets the gospel as anti-Jewish without asking the basic lexical question of whether, in each case, the word Ἰουδαῖος (Ioudaios) means ‘Jew’ or ‘Judean’—a distinction that might conceivably have been relevant to a Galilean Jew in the first century! Here is one further example of his weird approach:

Consequently, it is easy for John to conclude that Jews who do not believe when they first hear the gospel presumably never will; indeed, he feels compelled, as we have seen, to ascribe their unbelief to an ontological alienation from God.

This ignores what is certainly one of the most prominent themes in John’s gospel, which is that the decision to follow Jesus or not is a moral decision, and is conditioned by the moral character of the individual. (This is in the other gospels as well—the parable of the sower—but it’s very prominent in John.) Truly, I would recommend any reader to stop reading when Hayes starts on the gospel of John.

So much for the exegesis. Hayes moves on to synthesis, and proposes that each New Testament text that deals with ethics can be examined with the lenses of Community, Cross, and New Creation. Hayes proposes that each text be read in relation to these three categories. Community indicates the focus on the Body of Christ (or the newly re-thought Israel). The Cross indicates the paradigmatic role that Christ’s suffering has for all believers. And the New Creation emphasizes the eschatological renewal of all things, which began two thousand years ago, continues through the life of the Church, and awaits its fulfillment when Christ returns.

Hayes calls attention to absence of ‘love’ as a unifying force in Christian ethics. In the first place, he notes that ‘love’ as such is not prominent in all of the New Testament witnesses; it is huge in John, for instance, but almost absent in Hebrews. In the gospel of Mark, it receives very little direct mention. I’m not entirely convinced here, and I think it is probably worth a bit of exegetical work in the meaning of ‘love’ in the New Testament (and especially in the Septuagint), before giving up. Hayes goes on, however, to note that the Cross is the perfect expression of love, so that love really ends up being defined by the Cross in the New Testament, rather than the other way around. That is far more satisfying. And of course one could also note that between Cross (self-denial) and Community (concern for others), ‘love’ is more or less covered.

Throughout the book, Hayes consistently returns to Community, Cross, and New Creation when he discusses his syntheses of the New Testament texts. I cannot, upon reflection, think of an instance where use of these images focused an otherwise unclear matter, or contributed materially to his synthesis. The images are not wrong in themselves, I just don’t see their contribution to the overall work.

The third part of the book addresses hermeneutics. Most of the part is a description of  how some prominent Christian thinkers do New Testament ethics.  His sensitive treatment is a model of careful and respectful engagement with the work of others. Following that evaluation, he proposes some normative principles for applying Scripture to ethical situations. He discusses appeals to rules, principles, paradigms (i.e., people who are presented in Scripture as paradigmatic), and the symbolic world of the New Testament. This raised some questions for me, since I have internalized one of the main messages of The Lost World of Scripture, which is that we can’t simply spin morals out of Bible stories: we only take the authority of Scripture seriously when we use the texts as the authors intended them to be used (which, yes, is an interpretive decision). On a lighter note, I was personally amused that, after hundreds of pages of exegesis and careful engagement with the literature, Hayes suggests that when we turn to the New Testament for ethical guidance, we need to draw an analogy between what the Scripture says and the situation we’re facing. Just a bit anti-climactic after all the intellectual fireworks. He adds in the provisos that we should do this under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with the accountability of the community. Controversial ideas, indeed!

Then in the final part of the book, Hayes applies his model to several important issues of the day. These are selected to test different parts of the process. With respect to violence, for instance, the New Testament is consistently and univocally opposed to violence, whereas Tradition would generally endorse a just war theory. With respect to abortion, the New Testament says nothing specific, but Tradition before 1950 is univocally opposed. And so forth. (Hayes does not treat two of the topics that he feels are most pressing in our day: our relationship to our possession, and gender relations in the church.)

I accuse myself of intellectual laziness in saying that I don’t have a lot to say about this part of the book, because I mostly agree with where Hayes ends up. There are a couple of points of inconsistency, which for me are larger than quibbles, but far from being fatal flaws.

Hayes’s chapter on anti-Judaism and ethnic conflict assumes that the Church in the present day bears responsibility for crimes committed against Jewish people by Christians in the past. “Christians cannot disown the church’s past abuses of Jews.” What does that mean? Unfortunately I can’t be certain, because in the footnote following this sentence Hayes dismissively quotes another author asking the same question, and without providing any answer to it. In the first place, I certainly repudiate any instance in which a Christian person was anything less than kind and courteous to a Jewish person. I accept that terrible things were done, certainly some in the name of Christ, or using biblical texts as justifications of those actions; and in doing so, the perpetrators multiplied the gravity of their sin immeasurably. But with that said, I think it is obvious to all thinking people that those sorts of actions are never condoned or even hinted at in the New Testament. There is no conceivable warrant for violence against Jews in the New Testament—which Hayes himself proves indirectly, in his claim that there is never any warrant for violence in the New Testament. This paragraph is already overly long, but I want to walk this idea a bit further down the road. As an American, a descendant of the “good guys” in World War II, a good-natured person, a person who abhors racism of all varieties, and abhors anti-Semitism as particularly inimical to my faith, it would be easy for me to put on a display of false humility and say, “Yes, I am responsible too. Those people claimed to act in the name of Christ. I claim to act in the name of Christ. All Christians bear the guilt. ” That would go over well just about anywhere. But you cannot start from that muddled-headed concept of corporate guilt, and then explain why we should not then hold all Muslims responsible for the September 11 attacks, or the atrocities committed by ISIS—and all Muslims are certainly not responsible for those things. Particularly in the 21st century, it is profoundly important that we keep the sin firmly associated with the sinner, rather than with his/her religious or national demographic.

An separate issue with is the relationship between ethics within the Church and ethics within the society. Hayes is fairly consistent in limiting his treatment of ethics to life within the Body of Christ. He is emphatically not offering prescriptions for society. Mostly. So for instance when he discusses abortion, he clearly states that abortion should not be an option for people within the church, while leaving aside the question of civil law. When he discusses homosexuality, he says that Christians should support civil rights for homosexual people. Now, to be honest, I don’t know what “civil rights” meant for homosexuals in 1996—seven years before Lawrence v. Texas and 19 years before Obergefell v. Hodges. But the point is, in one instance Hayes doesn’t see Christian faith as informing Christians’ civic activities (e.g., whom or what they vote for), and in another he assumes that it will.

This gets into the broader question of what exactly the Church has to say the world about ethical matters. What is the nature of the New Testament’s ethical instruction? Was Jesus describing the ideal life of an idiosyncratic group of people, or was he talking about what it means to be truly human? If the former, then we had best keep to our private set rules and not presume to tell the lost what to do. If the latter, then it seems like we might have something helpful to say. This is a question that Hayes does not even wrestle with (on paper).

I don’t have an easy answer to this question. On the one hand, none of the New Testament’s ethical teaching is binding on those who are not disciples of Christ. It would also be inappropriate to communicate Christ’s ethical teaching in isolation of proclaiming His Lordship. This at least is something that Hayes sees clearly. He offers the following corrective to those who—perhaps out of a naïve liberality of spirit—would advocate pacifism on grounds other than obedience to Christ and trust in His reign:

Let it be said clearly, however, that the reasons for choosing Jesus’ way of peacemaking are not prudential. In calculable terms, this way is sheer folly. Why do we choose the way of nonviolent love of enemies? If our reasons for that choice are shaped by the New Testament, we are motivated not by the sheer horror of war, not by the desire for saving our own skins and the skins of our children (if we are trying to save our skins, pacifism is a very poor strategy), not by some general feeling of reverence for human life, not by the naive hope that all people are really nice and will be friendly if we are friendly first. No, if our reasons for choosing nonviolence are shaped by the New Testament witness, we act in simple obedience to the God who willed that his own Son should give himself up to death on a cross. We make this choice in the hope and anticipation that God’s love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this is possible. That is the life of discipleship to which the New Testament repeatedly calls us. When the church as a community is faithful to that calling, it prefigures the peaceable kingdom of God in a world wracked by violence.

But on the other hand, doesn’t Christ’s rejection of violence tell us something about what it means to be human—for instance, that coercing people to act in a certain way is to reject their humanity? Do we actually have nothing to say about violence, consumerism, sexism, racism, etc., except to those within the Church? Should the abolition movement have stopped when the last Christian sold his slaves? Do we really wish to rebuke Wilberforce and Douglass for imposing their beliefs on society?

Somewhere between outlawing slavery—which was good and necessary—and enshrining my understanding of sexual ethics in civil law—which seems excessive and inappropriate for government—I want to draw a line. I’m not in a position to say right now where that line should be, which is intellectually frustrating. But it’s one of those splinters of the mind that keeps this blog going.

So, Hayes wrote a good book. The things I appreciate and have learned from greatly exceed the number of things I object to, though (in the nature of things) my objections have filled most of this post. I’d be happy to write half as well as he does. I certainly look forward to the next book of his that I read. (I suspect it will be Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul.)

A bit of sanity in an insane election cycle

I did not vote in 2016. Neither Clinton nor Trump reached the standard of personal acceptability that would allow me to cast my vote in good conscience, let alone aligning with my views on policy. I woke up Wednesday morning prepared for disappointed no matter the outcome. I am still proud not to have had a hand in the outcome of this election. Being forced to choose between Trump and Clinton is the electoral equivalent to having to provide a yes/no answer to the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

I wrote previously about my difficulty in understanding and loving Trump supporters. I stand by what I wrote, though I would make a moral distinction between people who supported Trump during the primary and those who gritted their teeth and voted for him once he became the Republican nominee. I don’t agree with that decision, but I do see a moral distinction; see below.

Trump is a vile person, aptly described “as everything we teach our children not to be”. I certainly hope that his executive actions do no match the rhetoric he employed on the campaign trail, but he has certainly done enough damage to our society already by fanning ugly sentiments in the first place. It seems juvenile to me to claim that he is not my president, but I can say with all conviction and resolve that he could never be a guest in my home.

With that background, I would like to point out that the sky is not falling.

Trump’s victory, as such, tells us nothing about what is acceptable in America

Trump won the electoral college by having a total margin of perhaps 100,000 votes in several key states. Nate Silver points out that if 1 in 100 people had voted differently, we would have a different president. If those 100,000 people had simply lived in different states, we would have a different president.

If Clinton had won the presidency, we would still be living in a country where 47.3% of voters were willing to support Trump, in spite of it all. That is a bracing fact, and it would still be a fact if Clinton had won the electoral college. That is the kind of country we live in.

My cynical prediction is that, had Clinton won, people would not be tearing their hair out over the 47.3% of the population that was willing to support Trump, in spite of it all. For the most part, therefore, I judge the emotion (and now the riots) to be disappointment over losing, rather than to actual sorrow over the moral state of our country. If you are wracked by the sins of your countrymen in the years that you win as well, then of course I owe you an apology.

Put differently: Is it a cheering thought that Clinton won the popular vote? That there really are more people who wanted Clinton to be president than Trump? If not—if that’s salt in the wound—then I suggest that the emotion is disappoint over losing, rather than disappointment in the electorate.

In spite of this, I do find a silver lining in my next point.

I credit most voters with voting for policy over personality

I don’t know anyone (personally) who was excited about these candidates. Everyone I know who voted was gritting their teeth throughout the electoral process. The most compelling argument I encountered for choosing the lesser of two evils is that the next president will likely make three appointments to the Supreme Court. That is not trivial. Subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, that amounts to controlling a ninth of the federal government for a generation. Everybody wants their party to have that sort of power; nobody wants the opposition to have it.

With these things in mind, I credit the vast majority of voters with voting for a candidate who could provide an approximate match on policy positions, rather than for a candidate who was personally acceptable to them. I don’t believe that Trump voters were ambivalent about his manifold sexual indiscretions and his incendiary language about, e.g., Muslims and Mexicans. I don’t believe that Clinton voters were indifferent to her history of victim shaming, or her solicitation of funds, as a member of government, from heads of government for her family’s organization. I really do think most people were just willing to bite the bullet and cast their vote.

There are good exit poll figures to back this up. Trump was pushed over the threshold by people who liked neither candidate but felt forced to choose one.

Again, that is not the choice that I made; I disagree with those people. I think that there is a basic threshold of decency required of a president. (I believe that our last two presidents are both decent people; obviously it’s no reflection of my beliefs about their policies.)

It’s not as if most people chose Trump

This is a minor point, but voter turnout seems to have been about 55% this year. That’s a pretty good sample of the population, but it still exonerates about 75% of the population from actually voting for Trump.

Non-voters who didn’t like Trump are equally to blame

Here is a brief interlude for personal self-examination. Are you angry at the situation—which is morally creditable—or are you angry at (what you conceive of as) the other side? As noted above, the election could have been tipped by a trivial change in the voting preferences of the electorate. (As noted above, voter turnout was around 55%.) Those who would have supported Clinton but did not vote are just as much to blame (mathematically) as those who actually voted for Trump. Are you equally angry at non-voters who are otherwise just like you, and at voters who are different from you?

Presidents don’t have that much influence on the moral character of the nation

The candidate who receives 51% of electoral votes receives 100% of the presidency. There’s a bit of a symbolic boost there, I admit.

But consider that eight years of Bush were followed by eight years of Obama, which will be followed by Trump. There’s no cultural narrative there. There are no permanent changes. The presidency flits between the parties on the basis of 51-49 splits. The resident of the White House is an indicator of the national sentiment that fluctuates trivially over the years, not a generator of change.

Now, that last paragraph is not going to sell a lot of newspapers, so don’t expect to see it in print: but it’s true. Obama was the most inspiring presidential candidate in living memory, and he still didn’t move the needle in our national conversations. The president simply doesn’t have that much cultural power.

Overreacting now will blunt the impact of your reaction in the future

What’s striking to me is that Trump is the least qualified and most personally repulsive person ever elected to the presidency, but the rhetoric I’m seeing is the same rhetoric I heard from Democrats in 2000 and 2004, and from Republicans in 2008 and 2012. It’s the same volume. It’s the same fury.

This is a clear reflection of a news media that requires commentators to be furious and outraged, permanently. Would that it were only Two Minutes’ Hate! Now we have to keep it up 24/7. This is profoundly degrading to the moral fiber of our country. But there is a practical concern as well.

If everybody is a crazed extremist, then nobody is. Every recent presidential candidate has been vilified as extreme and out of touch—Bush, Gore, Kerry, Obama, McCain, Romney, everyone.  When Trump came along, there was really nothing left to say. Trump’s a demagogue inciting violence and playing on people’s worst fears? Yep, that’s what they said about the last guy.

Consider: if Hitler were to appear on the ticket in 2020, what would be left for us to say about that? We’ve already cranked it up to 11.

Calm down.

It follows from the previous point that the only productive way out of this situation is to have civil conversations and to moderate our own political views by considering the views of others in a genuine way. As a practical matter, promoting your party by demonizing the opposition is a dangerous game. That motivates the opposition as much as it motivates the base. Exhibits A, B, and C, in this respect are Bush 2000, Obama 2008, and Trump 2012.

Receiving. As a conservative person, I try to get most of my news from center-left outlets. I try to read editorials from perspectives that I disagree with. Guess what? Most of it is exactly the kind of tendentious reasoning that is used to defend conservative positions in conservative news outlets. But sometimes I learn something new.

Sending. Lightning would strike me from Heaven if I suggested being sensitive, so I will instead suggest that we try to be issue-driven rather than party-driven or personality-driven. There will always a lunatic fringe that believes that Bush started the Iraq War for oil, and that Obama was born in Kenya. Those are not the people I want to be associated with. I want to be engaging with people who can talk about the philosophical motivations and practical consequences of various policies. I have found—sometimes to my surprise—that people are often quite willing to discuss policy, rather than to simply use it as a political cudgel.

The Idea of a University

I finished reading The Idea of a University a few weeks ago, but haven’t had time to write up my thoughts on it. I still don’t have time to do the book justice, but I thought I would write something at least before whatever synthesis I have slips away. I read from a Kindle, and so it is easy to include quotations. I doubt there exists any book titled The Quotable Newman because, as is evident from the length of my quotations, Newman thought in paragraphs rather than in sound bites. So these quotations are overlong but, I believe, still worthwhile.

Because it is a famous book, I had a go at it probably twelve or fifteen years ago. I did not make it further than the introduction. One passage from the introduction struck me then, and struck me again recently. Newman contrasts with the goals of liberal education with the lesser goal of making suitable conversation partners—instilling a superficial knowledge that consists mostly of having opinions on a wide variety of matters.

Some one, however, will perhaps object that I am but advocating that spurious philosophism, which shows itself in what, for want of a word, I may call “viewiness,” when I speak so much of the formation, and consequent grasp, of the intellect. It may be said that the theory of University Education, which I have been delineating, if acted upon, would teach youths nothing soundly or thoroughly, and would dismiss them with nothing better than brilliant general views about all things whatever.

….

Such parti-coloured ingenuities are indeed one of the chief evils of the day, and men of real talent are not slow to minister to them. An intellectual man, as the world now conceives of him, is one who is full of “views” on all subjects of philosophy, on all matters of the day. It is almost thought a disgrace not to have a view at a moment’s notice on any question from the Personal Advent to the Cholera or Mesmerism. This is owing in great measure to the necessities of periodical literature, now so much in request. Every quarter of a year, every month, every day, there must be a supply, for the gratification of the public, of new and luminous theories on the subjects of religion, foreign politics, home politics, civil economy, finance, trade, agriculture, emigration, and the colonies. Slavery, the gold fields, German philosophy, the French Empire, Wellington, Peel, Ireland, must all be practised on, day after day, by what are called original thinkers. As the great man’s guest must produce his good stories or songs at the evening banquet, as the platform orator exhibits his telling facts at mid-day, so the journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas, and nutshell truths for the breakfast table. The very nature of periodical literature, broken into small wholes, and demanded punctually to an hour, involves the habit of this extempore philosophy.

Newman was concerned about the rise of periodical literature in 1852. How much greater cause for concern in 2004, with the then-new 24-hour news cycle. How much greater cause for concern in 2016, with blogs, tweets, social media, and so forth. “Chief evils of the day” isn’t putting it too lightly. Indeed I almost (almost!) look back fondly of the media climate of twenty years ago, when ‘infotainment’ at least gave a nod to information. Today’s media and social media coverage seems to have a laser-like focus on my opinion: Condemn this! Support that! Have an opinion about this! It’s the democratization of the shallow news coverage we all despise. And the causes were of course the same in 1852:

We refer the various matters which are brought home to us, material or moral, to causes which we happen to know of, or to such as are simply imaginary, sooner than refer them to nothing; and according to the activity of our intellect do we feel a pain and begin to fret, if we are not able to do so. Here we have an explanation of the multitude of off-hand sayings, flippant judgments, and shallow generalizations, with which the world abounds. Not from self-will only, nor from malevolence, but from the irritation which suspense occasions, is the mind forced on to pronounce, without sufficient data for pronouncing. Who does not form some view or other, for instance, of any public man, or any public event, nay, even so far in some cases as to reach the mental delineation of his appearance or of its scene? yet how few have a right to form any view.

“Few have a right to form any view”—that’s not terribly democratic, but I think it’s more or less accurate. What legitimate right do I really have to a view about the situation in the Middle East, the presidential election, or this or that shooting? I’m a linguist with exposure to a very narrow slice of the world.

In one of the early chapters, Newman argues that it is necessary for theology to be taught in universities in part because, left unchecked, academics are likely to colonize other areas of study with their own approaches and methodologies. As Newman points out, this is a flaw in the individual, not the science:

For example, it is a mere unwarranted assumption if the Antiquarian says, “Nothing has ever taken place but is to be found in historical documents;” or if the Philosophic Historian says, “There is nothing in Judaism different from other political institutions;” or if the Anatomist, “There is no soul beyond the brain;” or if the Political Economist, “Easy circumstances make men virtuous.” These are enunciations, not of Science, but of Private Judgment; and it is Private Judgment that infects every science which it touches with a hostility to Theology, a hostility which properly attaches to no science in itself whatever.

Of course, anyone with any exposure any media will be familiar with academics who use their credibility in their narrow specialization as a soapbox to declaim about any social or scientific issue they desire. (An advantage of peer review: it is acknowledged that the scientist is not the authority, and that individual claims stand or fall on their own merits.)

Properly, a university environment should correct these tendencies in individuals, by keeping the individual grounded and oriented in the big (universal) picture. These lines, which I am sure have been quoted thousands of times by proponents of liberal arts, are worth quoting again:

This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses.

(Tangentially, it is interesting to see Newman—throughout the book—addressing an audience in which, although it was obvious that not everyone was a Christian, it was not really socially possible to be open about that. On the one hand it allows for some interesting rhetorical ploys, and on the other it gives him opportunity to refer gently to unspoken realities.)

I quote the passage below for the last sentence. Newman defends the idea of a liberal education as a real thing, not just a label. That’s not an easy distinction to make, so I find the last sentence interesting methodologically.

Now, as to the particular instance before us, the word “liberal” as applied to Knowledge and Education, expresses a specific idea, which ever has been, and ever will be, while the nature of man is the same, just as the idea of the Beautiful is specific, or of the Sublime, or of the Ridiculous, or of the Sordid. It is in the world now, it was in the world then; and, as in the case of the dogmas of faith, it is illustrated by a continuous historical tradition, and never was out of the world, from the time it came into it. There have indeed been differences of opinion from time to time, as to what pursuits and what arts came under that idea, but such differences are but an additional evidence of its reality. That idea must have a substance in it, which has maintained its ground amid these conflicts and changes, which has ever served as a standard to measure things withal, which has passed from mind to mind unchanged, when there was so much to colour, so much to influence any notion or thought whatever, which was not founded in our very nature. Were it a mere generalization, it would have varied with the subjects from which it was generalized; but though its subjects vary with the age, it varies not itself.

A beautiful passage about the formative effect of education, as opposed to a mere utilitarian concept of instruction, or training:

Moreover, such knowledge is not a mere extrinsic or accidental advantage, which is ours to-day and another’s to-morrow, which may be got up from a book, and easily forgotten again, which we can command or communicate at our pleasure, which we can borrow for the occasion, carry about in our hand, and take into the market; it is an acquired illumination, it is a habit, a personal possession, and an inward endowment. And this is the reason, why it is more correct, as well as more usual, to speak of a University as a place of education, than of instruction, though, when knowledge is concerned, instruction would at first sight have seemed the more appropriate word. We are instructed, for instance, in manual exercises, in the fine and useful arts, in trades, and in ways of business; for these are methods, which have little or no effect upon the mind itself, are contained in rules committed to memory, to tradition, or to use, and bear upon an end external to themselves. But education is a higher word; it implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character; it is something individual and permanent, and is commonly spoken of in connexion with religion and virtue.

Note how precisely calibrated the last sentence is, hinting at an association without committing himself to an identity. Later on, however, Newman differentiates clearly between virtue and intellectual formation.

I admit, rather I maintain, what they have been urging, for I consider Knowledge to have its end in itself. For all its friends, or its enemies, may say, I insist upon it, that it is as real a mistake to burden it with virtue or religion as with the mechanical arts. Its direct business is not to steel the soul against temptation or to console it in affliction, any more than to set the loom in motion, or to direct the steam carriage; be it ever so much the means or the condition of both material and moral advancement, still, taken by and in itself, it as little mends our hearts as it improves our temporal circumstances. And if its eulogists claim for it such a power, they commit the very same kind of encroachment on a province not their own as the political economist who should maintain that his science educated him for casuistry or diplomacy. Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentlemen, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;—these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University; I am advocating, I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless,—pleasant, alas, and attractive as he shows when decked out in them. Taken by themselves, they do but seem to be what they are not; they look like virtue at a distance, but they are detected by close observers, and on the long run; and hence it is that they are popularly accused of pretence and hypocrisy, not, I repeat, from their own fault, but because their professors and their admirers persist in taking them for what they are not, and are officious in arrogating for them a praise to which they have no claim. Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.

More:

There is a physical beauty and a moral: there is a beauty of person, there is a beauty of our moral being, which is natural virtue; and in like manner there is a beauty, there is a perfection, of the intellect.

….

To open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, eloquent expression, is an object as intelligible (for here we are inquiring, not what the object of a Liberal Education is worth, nor what use the Church makes of it, but what it is in itself), I say, an object as intelligible as the cultivation of virtue, while, at the same time, it is absolutely distinct from it.

….

It is not the mere addition to our knowledge that is the illumination; but the locomotion, the movement onwards, of that mental centre, to which both what we know, and what we are learning, the accumulating mass of our acquirements, gravitates. And therefore a truly great intellect, and recognized to be such by the common opinion of mankind, such as the intellect of Aristotle, or of St. Thomas, or of Newton, or of Goethe, (I purposely take instances within and without the Catholic pale, when I would speak of the intellect as such,) is one which takes a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these one on another; without which there is no whole, and no centre. It possesses the knowledge, not only of things, but also of their mutual and true relations; knowledge, not merely considered as acquirement, but as philosophy.

A caution to those of us who are in a position to acquire an (ahem) superficial urbanity because we have had the opportunity to travel:

Perhaps they have been much in foreign countries, and they receive, in a passive, otiose, unfruitful way, the various facts which are forced upon them there. Seafaring men, for example, range from one end of the earth to the other; but the multiplicity of external objects, which they have encountered, forms no symmetrical and consistent picture upon their imagination; they see the tapestry of human life, as it were on the wrong side, and it tells no story. They sleep, and they rise up, and they find themselves, now in Europe, now in Asia; they see visions of great cities and wild regions; they are in the marts of commerce, or amid the islands of the South; they gaze on Pompey’s Pillar, or on the Andes; and nothing which meets them carries them forward or backward, to any idea beyond itself. Nothing has a drift or relation; nothing has a history or a promise. Every thing stands by itself, and comes and goes in its turn, like the shifting scenes of a show, which leave the spectator where he was.

That only is true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.

A gem:

That perfection of the Intellect, which is the result of Education, and its beau ideal, to be imparted to individuals in their respective measures, is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the finite mind can embrace them, each in its place, and with its own characteristics upon it. It is almost prophetic from its knowledge of history; it is almost heart-searching from its knowledge of human nature; it has almost supernatural charity from its freedom from littleness and prejudice; it has almost the repose of faith, because nothing can startle it; it has almost the beauty and harmony of heavenly contemplation, so intimate is it with the eternal order of things and the music of the spheres.

This is a harsh perspective on the potential of mass media. I think we can credit readers with the ability to process what they read, and to profit from it.

What the steam engine does with matter, the printing press is to do with mind; it is to act mechanically, and the population is to be passively, almost unconsciously enlightened, by the mere multiplication and dissemination of volumes.

An apt contrast:

The bodily eye, the organ for apprehending material objects, is provided by nature; the eye of the mind, of which the object is truth, is the work of discipline and habit.

The following provided food for thought. I believe it is a commonplace that the Industrial Revolution reduced craftsman to button-pushers. There is a parallel sense in which, in our highly specialized modern world, everyone is reduced to a cog in a machine.

“It is an undisputed maxim in Political Economy,” says Dr. Copleston, “that the separation of professions and the division of labour tend to the perfection of every art, to the wealth of nations, to the general comfort and well-being of the community. This principle of division is in some instances pursued so far as to excite the wonder of people to whose notice it is for the first time pointed out. There is no saying to what extent it may not be carried; and the more the powers of each individual are concentrated in one employment, the greater skill and quickness will he naturally display in performing it. But, while he thus contributes more effectually to the accumulation of national wealth, he becomes himself more and more degraded as a rational being. In proportion as his sphere of action is narrowed his mental powers and habits become contracted; and he resembles a subordinate part of some powerful machinery, useful in its place, but insignificant and worthless out of it. If it be necessary, as it is beyond all question necessary, that society should be split into divisions and subdivisions, in order that its several duties may be well performed, yet we must be careful not to yield up ourselves wholly and exclusively to the guidance of this system; we must observe what its evils are, and we should modify and restrain it, by bringing into action other principles, which may serve as a check and counterpoise to the main force.

One might succeed reasonably well in a highly specific field in a university setting, for instance, and then move to a developing country and realize the extent to which one was dependent on one’s context. J

Mr Newman quoting Mr Davison’s reply to Mr Copleston:

Judgment does not stand here for a certain homely, useful quality of intellect, that guards a person from committing mistakes to the injury of his fortunes or common reputation; but for that master-principle of business, literature, and talent, which gives him strength in any subject he chooses to grapple with, and enables him to seize the strong point in it. Whether this definition be metaphysically correct or not, it comes home to the substance of our inquiry. It describes the power that every one desires to possess when he comes to act in a profession, or elsewhere; and corresponds with our best idea of a cultivated mind.

Here and there, you can tell that Newman really perceives university education as a component of spiritual and moral formation.

But a University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to [pg 178] popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life.

We’ll just ignore the slightly gnostic tone at the end of this first paragraph (As an INTJ, I understand what he’s getting at.)

Here then I think is the important aid which intellectual cultivation furnishes to us in rescuing the victims of passion and self-will. It does not supply religious motives; it is not the cause or proper antecedent of any thing supernatural; it is not meritorious of heavenly aid or reward; but it does a work, at least materially good (as theologians speak), whatever be its real and formal character. It expels the excitements of sense by the introduction of those of the intellect.

….

This then is the primâ facie advantage of the pursuit of Knowledge; it is the drawing the mind off from things which will harm it to subjects which are worthy a rational being; and, though it does not raise it above nature, nor has any tendency to make us pleasing to our Maker, yet is it nothing to substitute what is in itself harmless for what is, to say the least, inexpressibly dangerous? is it a little thing to exchange a circle of ideas which are certainly sinful, for others which are certainly not so?

And more on intellectual development as a moral good. What to say? I can’t deny the benefits of education in my own life. I resist the idea that formal education offers any unique opportunity for moral formation, simply because today’s widespread formal education is a historical anomaly, and postsecondary education is not typical even in America. The second passage below is more amenable to my democratic sentiments.

In many cases, where it exists, sins, familiar to those who are otherwise circumstanced, will not even occur to the mind: in others, the sense of shame and the quickened apprehension of detection will act as a sufficient obstacle to them, when they do present themselves before it. Then, again, the fastidiousness I am speaking of will create a simple hatred of that miserable tone of conversation which, obtaining as it does in the world, is a constant fuel of evil, heaped up round about the soul: moreover, it will create an irresolution and indecision in doing wrong, which will act as a remora till the danger is past away. And though it has no tendency, I repeat, to mend the heart, or to secure it from the dominion in other shapes of those very evils which it repels in the particular modes of approach by which they prevail over others, yet cases may occur when it gives birth, after sins have been committed, to so keen a remorse and so intense a self-hatred, as are even sufficient to cure the particular moral disorder, and to prevent its accesses ever afterwards;—as the spendthrift in the story, who, after gazing on his lost acres from the summit of an eminence, came down a miser, and remained a miser to the end of his days.

Cheap literature, libraries of useful and entertaining knowledge, scientific lectureships, museums, zoological collections, buildings and gardens to please the eye and to give repose to the feelings, external objects of whatever kind, which may take the mind off itself, and expand and elevate it in liberal contemplations, these are the human means, wisely suggested, and good as far as they go, for at least parrying the assaults of moral evil, and keeping at bay the enemies, not only of the individual soul, but of society at large.

And a final, lengthy-but-worthwhile reflection on the distinction between liberal education and spiritual formation. I feel as though C.S. Lewis could have written this first paragraph; presumably he profited from it when he read it.

And from this shallowness of philosophical Religion it comes to pass that its disciples seem able to fulfil certain precepts of Christianity more readily and exactly than Christians themselves. St. Paul, as I have said, gives us a pattern of evangelical perfection; he draws the Christian character in its most graceful form, and its most beautiful hues. He discourses of that charity which is patient and meek, humble and single-minded, disinterested, contented, and persevering. He tells us to prefer each the other before himself, to give way to each other, to abstain from rude words and evil speech, to avoid self-conceit, to be calm and grave, to be cheerful and happy, to observe peace with all men, truth and justice, courtesy and gentleness, all that is modest, amiable, virtuous, and of good repute. Such is St. Paul’s exemplar of the Christian in his external relations; and, I repeat, the school of the world seems to send out living copies of this typical excellence with greater success than the Church. At this day the “gentleman” is the creation, not of Christianity, but of civilization. But the reason is obvious. The world is content with setting right the surface of things; the Church aims at regenerating the very depths of the heart. She ever begins with the beginning; and, as regards the multitude of her children, is never able to get beyond the beginning, but is continually employed in laying the foundation. She is engaged with what is essential, as previous and as introductory to the ornamental and the attractive. She is curing men and keeping them clear of mortal sin; she is “treating of justice and chastity, and the judgment to come:” she is insisting on faith and hope, and devotion, and honesty, and the elements of charity; and has so much to do with precept, that she almost leaves it to inspirations from Heaven to suggest what is of counsel and perfection. She aims at what is necessary rather than at what is desirable. She is for the many as well as for the few. She is putting souls in the way of salvation, that they may then be in a condition, if they shall be called upon, to aspire to the heroic, and to attain the full proportions, as well as the rudiments, of the beautiful.

….

This embellishment of the exterior is almost the beginning and the end of philosophical morality. This is why it aims at being modest rather than humble; this is how it can be proud at the very time that it is unassuming. To humility indeed it does not even aspire; humility is one of the most difficult of virtues both to attain and to ascertain. It lies close upon the heart itself, and its tests are exceedingly delicate and subtle. Its counterfeits abound; however, we are little concerned with them here, for, I repeat, it is hardly professed even by name in the code of ethics which we are reviewing. As has been often observed, ancient civilization had not the idea, and had no word to express it: or rather, it had the idea, and considered it a defect of mind, not a virtue, so that the word which denoted it conveyed a reproach. As to the modern world, you may gather its ignorance of it by its perversion of the somewhat parallel term “condescension.” Humility or condescension, viewed as a virtue of conduct, may be said to consist, as in other things, so in our placing ourselves in our thoughts on a level with our inferiors; it is not only a voluntary relinquishment of the privileges of our own station, but an actual participation or assumption of the condition of those to whom we stoop. This is true humility, to feel and to behave as if we were low; not, to cherish a notion of our importance, while we affect a low position. Such was St. Paul’s humility, when he called himself “the least of the saints;” such the humility of those many holy men who have considered themselves the greatest of sinners. It is an abdication, as far as their own thoughts are concerned, of those prerogatives or privileges to which others deem them entitled. Now it is not a little instructive to contrast with this idea, Gentlemen,—with this theological meaning of the word “condescension,”—its proper English sense; put them in juxta-position, and you will at once see the difference between the world’s humility and the humility of the Gospel. As the world uses the word, “condescension” is a stooping indeed of the person, but a bending forward, unattended with any the slightest effort to leave by a single inch the seat in which it is so firmly established. It is the act of a superior, who protests to himself, while he commits it, that he is superior still, and that he is doing nothing else but an act of grace towards those on whose level, in theory, he is placing himself.

….

Knowledge, viewed as Knowledge, exerts a subtle influence in throwing us back on ourselves, and making us our own centre, and our minds the measure of all things.

A couple of brief quotes on literate:

Literature stands related to Man as Science stands to Nature; it is his history.

.…

Literature is to man in some sort what autobiography is to the individual; it is his Life and Remains.

This is a portion of an interesting passage in which Newman rejects the idea that we should aim for a Christian literature, and reject secular literature. Following on from the shorter quotes above, Newman observes that since literature is a mirror of humanity, it’s pointless to expect it to be exclusively Christian.

Such is man: put him aside, keep him before you; but, whatever you do, do not take him for what he is not, for something more divine and sacred, for man regenerate. Nay, beware of showing God’s grace and its work at such disadvantage as to make the few whom it has thoroughly influenced compete in intellect with the vast multitude who either have it not, or use it ill. The elect are few to choose out of, and the world is inexhaustible. From the first, Jabel and Tubalcain, Nimrod “the stout hunter,” the learning of the Pharaohs, and the wisdom of the East country, are of the world. Every now and then they are rivalled by a Solomon or a Beseleel, but the habitat of natural gifts is the natural man. The Church may use them, she cannot at her will originate them. Not till the whole human race is made new will its literature be pure and true. Possible of course it is in idea, for nature, inspired by heavenly grace, to exhibit itself on a large scale, in an originality of thought or action, even far beyond what the world’s literature has recorded or exemplified; but, if you would in fact have a literature of saints, first of all have a nation of them.

And I think this goes a long way toward explaining why Christian literature doesn’t often work. Christian themes work best when explored in literature indirectly. (One thinks of The Lord of the Rings and The Space Trilogy in this regard; and of course of Lewis’s gentle criticism of the novels of George MacDonald.) Novels written from a Christian world view, set in a world saturated by Christianity, don’t work because that’s not the world we live in.

Psalms

This is a chapel talk I gave this past Summer, which is more or less the religious counterpart to my previous two blog posts on the cultivation of literary appetite (here and here). In my previous post I credited Japanese culture (by way of Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword) for the idea of cultivating appreciation.  On the religious side, Dallas Williard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines was an important influence. The two strands are now fused in my thinking, but I don’t believe that they were in the beginning.

This struck me as as rambling and over-long when I first delivered it, and the passage of time has not softened my opinion. Oh well.


I want to speak this morning about the book of Psalms, and the role that the psalms are beginning to play in my own life. I’ve undergone a change in the last few years, from reading the psalms as poetry, to reading them in a more disciplined fashion, with the intent of transforming my soul. So this is pretty recent, and I don’t expect everything that I’ll say this morning to be helpful.  I don’t even give it much weight myself. But here we go.

My testimony is fairly typical I think. I grew up in the church, but as I grew up I came to realize that I was not a Christian in any meaningful sense of the term, and then there was point of repentance, of the presence of the Holy Spirit. All that to say, long before I had made any sort of commitment to Christ, I grew up in a very pro-psalms environment. I heard that the psalms were classic expressions of faith, applicable to any situation, and so forth. I heard it in sermons, books, and the testimony of Christians of all ages. So I have always had high expectations from the Psalms. Unfortunately, I was rarely able to really get into the psalms. For a time, I had the practice of reading five psalms every day. That gets you through the psalter in a month. I did that for quite some time—I’m don’t remember how long, but I certainly read each psalm several times over. Then at some point I lost that practice, and I can’t honestly say that I missed it.

Now, I used to read the psalms like I read any other poetry—with more reverence and respect, but still just like any other poetry. Let’s say that I was reading through the psalter systematically. I would read a psalm and think, more or less, about whether I agreed or disagreed—or, not about whether I agreed or disagreed with the Bible as such, but I thought about whether I could feel the sentiment that the psalmist was expressing. It either did it for me or it didn’t. Or, I might read a psalm for a specific occasion: Psalm 23 if I was feeling upbeat, Psalm 51 if I needed to express repentance, Psalm 100 if I wanted to praise God.

That’s just how I read poetry: I read to enjoy the poem, to try to understand it, and to see whether it speaks to me at any level. Some poems speak more to me than others; some authors speak more to me than others. Rightly or wrongly, I tend not to care for poems I have to think too much about. I like to understand what’s going on. How well do those preferences serve me when I approach the psalms? Not too well, actually. The Psalms are very different. A modern poem might be happy or sad, jubilant or meditative; it might tell a story or reflect on a theological truth. But psalms often have all that in a single poem. There are celebrations of past deliverance, agony over being pursued by attackers or slanderers, and meditations on wisdom. Each of those might be given two lines in a six-line psalm. It can be a struggle to figure out how all the pieces fit together. It can even be hard to figure out the psalmist’s state of mind: is he facing opposition and galvanized for action? Is he paralyzed by depression and trying to talk himself out of it? It’s not always clear, and that makes the Psalms difficult. And that makes it hard, of course, to find a psalm that I feel speaks to where I am. And so, not very long ago, it seemed strange that someone would advocate “praying the psalms”—because unlike David, I’m not often being pursued by my enemies; I’ve never wronged a Hittite; and so forth.

Psalms are also challenging because of the breadth of emotion they express. When I read very optimistic psalms, I want to pull the psalmist back a bit—so he’s not disappointed if things don’t turn out well. When I read angry psalms, I’m uncomfortable for different reasons: breaking arms, breaking teeth, dashing out babies’ brains. Even allowing for some hyperbole, those are not feelings that I’m accustomed to expressing. (That’s not to say that they’re not there, they’re just not the feelings I talk about, or even admit to myself.) But the best thing about the psalms is that they are so comprehensive. Depending on the day, each of us will want to pray for deliverance, curse our enemies, celebrate God’s word, or imagine that we can see everything working out according to God’s perfect will. Now, it’s rare to find contemporary Christian music that will explore the darker side of life; you can’t put that on Christian radio or sing it in church. Some emotions are okay and some are not. So it’s sad that the psalms are not read in church much, but perhaps not surprising. The psalms give us that emotional range.

Psalms are also difficult because, as an Old Testament professor put it, they are written for us but they are not written to us. Many of the images and metaphors in the psalms are not meaningful to us. Here is the whole of Psalm 136:

How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.

There’s nothing there that I don’t understand, but there’s also nothing there that connects to me emotionally. It really takes all of my historical knowledge and cross-cultural experience to understand the imagery: how anointing was a privilege—though it does not sound pleasant to me; how the abundance of oil would be so much more meaningful among people who were materially poorer than we are; how the entire community gains honor when its leader is honored; how Aaron represented the ideal priest, the pure form of religion, free from later corruptions; how valuable dew is in the desert, how it is a sign of life and prosperity. I have to make a huge effort even to understand the imagery, and even then, I am barely able to connect emotionally.

So, it’s been quite easy for me to list the reasons that I wasn’t connecting with the psalms. I’d now like to tell you what has changed for me.

The first thing that changed for me was that I became convicted that I had become quite disconnected emotionally from God. About three and a half years ago I was in a very dark place emotionally—I think certainly was more despondent, cynical, and frustrated than I ever have been before or since; and there were good reasons for that. At that time in my life, a poem called The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats, meant a great deal to me, because it expressed much of what I was feeling. Now, Yeats was not a Christian and the poem isn’t a Christian poem. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it is striking that my thoughts and emotions connected to that poem rather than to something from the psalms, or to some other passage of Scripture. I think it’s a clear demonstration that I was not engaged with God as I worked through things; I had gone elsewhere. So—not in the midst of that experience, but as I reflected upon it months later—that was something of a wake-up call.

In the year or two following that, I read two helpful books. One was The Case for the Psalms, by N.T. Wright, in which the author basically begs the reader to take the psalms seriously. The other was A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, by Eugene Peterson, which is a meditation on the Psalms of Ascent, psalms 120 through 134, which are thought to have been sung by pilgrims during pilgrimages and feasts. Both are excellent books, and I’m drawing on them with what follows.

But first let me share something that C.S. Lewis said, in his book A Preface to Paradise Lost, which speaks to the way I was reading the psalms. Paradise Lost is the greatest epic poem in the English language—possibly in any language—and in his preface, Lewis reflects on the nature of the epic genre. He said most students of poetry approach epic poetry as if it were lyric poetry. Lyric poetry emphasizes the expression of emotion with beautiful language. Lewis said that if you check out a copy of Paradise Lost from the library, you will find that people have underlined “the good lines” in the first few pages, but that the underlining drops off quickly because such people give up on the poem. They miss the larger effects that the author intended—the effects that require an entire epic poem to develop. They miss out on the poem because they’re not reading it in the right way. They’re approaching it with the wrong goals.

Lewis was only speaking of how students of poetry misread Paradise Lost, but I think his critique applies equally well to the way that I was reading the psalms. I was looking for the good verse, the psalm that spoke to me, the emotional high. But I think that in reading the psalms that way, I was more or less missing the point of the psalms. In fact, I was reading the psalms for exactly the wrong reason. I wanted the psalms to express my feelings. But—and this is the main point of this talk—the psalms should instead form our emotions and our interpretation of life.

In seventeen years of Christian discipleship—of course at various levels of seriousness and intensity over the years—this is the most profound thing that I’ve learned about the Christian life: you are being formed spiritually. Right now. Yesterday. The day before that. All the way back to the day you were born. You are constantly being formed. You’re being formed by your friends, by your church, by the books you read, by the movies and television you watch, by the music you listen to: everything is contributing to who you are. In fact, once you know where people are from, what denomination, what family background, what they read and listen to, and who their friends are, there are usually few surprises about how they live. There are surprises, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Our character is largely the sum of the things that influence us.

I’d be surprised if you didn’t recoil at least a little bit when I said that, so I’m going to take a moment to explain myself. There are probably two things going on in your reaction. First of all, if you’re from the West, your culture is incredibly individualistic. Western culture is largely a product of the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement. That means that we value and believe in individual freedom, and the importance of an individual response to life. The classic expression of that line of thinking, familiar to all of us from grade school, is this: “You are special and unique.” Special and unique, you know, just like everybody else. And the reason we talk like that is because we’ve absorbed values from Romanticism: the idea that the only thing that counts is a unique personal or emotional reaction. American Pastor Max Lucado did not write a book entitled You Are Special because there’s a Bible verse that says, “You are special.” He wrote that book because our culture has created in us an emotional need to feel special, and he’s responding to a need that our culture has created in us. I’m not prepared to say that’s a wrong thing to do, but I think that we should at least be aware of where the need comes from: from our culture, not from the Bible. So when I say, “Look, there’s this book of Bronze Age poetry is really important and should be forming your soul, whether or not it means anything to you right now,” Western culture does not really prepare you to receive that message.

Second of all, if you’re an evangelical Christian, you probably favor stories of sudden, dramatic conversions. I will leave it to you to reflect upon how our expectations from Romanticism inform our expectations about our relationship to God. But I had a dramatic conversion experience, and I know it’s real. But we can take the wrong lesson from those experiences, and start to think that progress in the Christian life comes when we finally believe hard enough, or are finally dedicated enough, or finally having a sudden flash of insight. Important as sudden changes can be—and they are real, in my experience and in the experience of many others—our spiritual and moral formation is typically an extremely gradual process. That is the overwhelming experience of Christians throughout history, even those with dramatic conversion experiences. Christian spiritual formation is the product of thousands of decisions, turning toward God or away from God, doing things that sensitize you to sin or deaden your perception of it. But again, certainly for Westerners, the message that you should read and meditate on the Psalms, not as a one-off, but as a life-long discipline, is a bit odd. Rich Mullins had something to say about this. He says:

It used to be I only got born again every year, about once a year. That was when I was going to camp; you know, you go every year and get born again again. Those of you who are young enough to go to camp and rededicate your life every year, keep doing it. Because by the time you get to college you’re gonna have to re-dedicate your life about every six months. Then you’ll graduate from college and it will become a quarterly thing. By the time you’re in your 40’s and 50’s you’ll do it about four times a day.

I think that sums it up nicely. Many of us, growing up, rededicated our lives to Christ on the last night of camp on an annual basis. Long before the end of high school, that started feeling a bit artificial, at least to me. But the problem was not that it had to be redone every year, but that it was only being done once a year. We need to repent—that is, to turn back to God—continually. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, even just this Summer, we have heard several people give messages about the importance of the slow and steady—and repetitive and unexciting!—work of spiritual formation. That’s where real Christian discipleship happens.

Let me bring this back to the psalms. By now I think the reasons for my earlier disappointment with the psalms should be clear. I had all these wise and holy people talking about how much the psalms meant to them, but they did nothing for me. That wasn’t a coincidence. It’s because I was immature in my faith—as I still am, relatively. But here’s the shift in mindset: now I don’t read the psalms because they mean something to me. I read the psalms because they should mean something to me. I read them because I need to be formed by them. The language, and emotion, and thought of the psalms need to get into me, and start changing how I speak, feel, and think.

That means that sometimes I read psalms out of a sense of duty, with no emotional or spiritual response. That will set off all sorts of alarms in your head, partly because you come from a culture informed by Romanticism, and partly because of an ill-defined bogeyman in evangelical Christianity called “legalism.” But it’s absolutely necessary for me to stick to it. I don’t want my emotions in the driver’s seat; I am trying to train my emotions to give an appropriate response. The idea that we can train our tastes and desires is not strongly emphasized in American culture. I first encountered the idea in an ethnography of Japanese culture, but it’s also in the ancient Greeks. Let me try to give an analogy. Who’s ever been rock climbing? I bet I can sum up your first experience of rock climbing with two words: terror and humiliation. We’re terrified at first because we’re not used to trusting our weight to a thin rope. We’re humiliated because we’re using an entirely different new set of muscles, and making all sorts of idiotic mistakes. Our forearms turn to jelly, and people are shouting incomprehensible things to us from below. The first difficult climb is not a pleasant experience. But if we can soldier through those difficulties to learn to enjoy that sport, I think we can train ourselves to appreciate the psalms as well. The emotional response and the spiritual formation are not the same thing, but they are not independent. In rock climbing, our emotional enjoyment of the sport is clearly different from the process of developing muscle and stamina, and learning climbing techniques. But the two go hand in hand, and reinforce one another. So it is with the Psalms.

I’m now going to talk a bit about how our commitment to a text informs the way that we read it. To do that, I want to read another psalm, Psalm 95.

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.” So I declared on oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest.”

Now be honest, how many of you were surprised by the way that end? I hope it was a little surprising at least. I hope that you’re not so accustomed to not understanding the Bible that you didn’t notice the shift in tone. We start off with a statement of corporate piety, and a celebration of the Lord as a Creator, and of Israel as his special possession. And then there’s a sharp pivot, and we’re reminded that that first generation that came out Egypt rebelled and were rejected by God, and, as the author of Hebrews says, “their bodies fell in the desert.” It’s a strong and sudden contrast. What do we make of it?

One option is to give up. Both pragmatics and discourse admit that, for some messages, the listener has to conclude that the text doesn’t hold together, or make any sense. So that’s one option: maybe it’s just two unrelated halves. But if I’m coming to the text from a place of commitment—that is, if I believe that God has taken care, throughout history, to ensure that Psalm 95 has come to me in this form—then I have to be willing to live with the psalm. And, more than that: if I take God’s message seriously, it’s probably better that I live with my questions, rather than try to answer them and be done with it.

I do have some tentative ideas. I think Psalm 95 is a very jarring presentation of a very jarring reality: both that we are God’s chosen people, protected by a mighty God, and that we have it in our power to reject God and be rejected by him, just as our forefathers did. Humans are, as Milton said, “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.” God did create a special people for Himself, but the People of God throughout history have continually drawn the wrong lesson from that. Membership in the People of God—the Body of Christ—is, I believe, more a position of responsibility than a position of privilege. Now that’s my current interpretation, but I hope that, beyond whatever I happen to think right now about Psalm 95, the psalm is getting into my heart and rearranging my thoughts and emotional responses, filling me with both awe and caution. And poetry is well suited to the task. In poetry, the reader or listener is invited—to a greater extent, say, than in a story—to think about the meaning, and take responsibility for interpreting it and absorbing it. Perhaps for that reason, poetry often sinks in deeper than more direct communication. It’s no coincidence that three-fourths of the Hebrew Bible is in verse.

I’m now going to talk about how the Psalms can form our understanding of prayer in general. I’ll go about it in a slightly unusual way. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Grimms’ Fairy Tales. It’s a collection of German fairy tales, published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 19th century. When you read the tales, you begin to get a sense of the world of German folk literature. There are kings, princes, and princesses; there are millers, wood cutters, and servants. There are fairies, magic beans, and magic animals. And there are certain kinds of events: certain kinds of cruelty, certain acts of kindness, certain means of resolving problems. It gets to the point where, long before the end of the book, you’ve got a pretty firm idea of how things work in that world—what stories are possible, as it were. They’re all stitched together using the same basic elements. It’s kind of like going down a list of sentences in a grammar exercise: you eventually come to understand the combinatorial possibilities, and you learn the grammar of the language. And, working from that metaphor, there have been studies of narrative grammar.

Now I’m concerned about sending the wrong message if I compare the Bible with a book of fairy tales. … But I think you can see the point. The Psalms—as a large collection of the prayers of the people of God—constitute a sort of language of prayer, a theory of everything that can be prayed about. We can internalize the grammar of the psalms in the same way that we internalize the grammar of a foreign language, though exposure and reflection. The metaphor works pretty well. At the outset, we’re confronted by a wall of noise: unfamiliar poetic structures, strange metaphors, foreign concepts. But through exposure, the psalms begin to mold our outlook on life; they begin to inform our understanding of our relationship to God, and to the people of God. They place us where we belong, in the story of Israel. They present what should be the fundamental categories of our life: worship, loyalty to God, the pursuit of wisdom, the need for forgiveness, and so forth.

I wouldn’t want to push this too far, because we have other prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, or Jesus’s prayer at the Last Supper, which are not just rearrangements of verses of the psalms. But the breadth of the psalms provides a very rich grammar. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to pray as fluently as we can speak our mother tongue? Wouldn’t it be nice to be saturated by Scripture in that way—not just from memorization, but because the words have had their proper effect on our hearts? I’m not there, not by a long shot. But I can tell you who is. The strongest recommendation I can give for the psalms comes from the writers of the New Testament. No other book is quoted in the New Testament as much as the psalms. No fewer than forty-three psalms are quote directly in the New Testament—some of course by Jesus Himself. And just about every other psalm is alluded to, though without a direct quotation. Some of those are quoted with a purpose, like the messianic psalms (2, 8, and 110). But elsewhere it’s clear that the psalms were so much a part of their lives that the quotations came out naturally. We have the prayer book of Jesus and the apostles. We have the opportunity to pray along with them.

I start writing this talk a few months ago. When I returned to it recently, the last thing I’d written was, “Now I’m going to share a few things that I have learned from the psalms.” And try as I might, I could not recall what things I was thinking about when I wrote that, or if I even had anything in mind at all. It’s quite possible that I wrote it just because that’s the kind of thing you say in a chapel talk. But isn’t the phrasing interesting? It’s a very linguistic approach. “I have read the psalms. I learned these things. And now I will tell them to you so that you can know them too.” All of a sudden we’re back in the realm of transferring knowledge. And that’s really a very small part of Christian discipleship. All of the knowledge about the Psalms—and imagine how much there is to know, and how little you and I know—is insignificant compared to the value of a heart that is being transformed by the Psalms. It won’t come naturally at first; that’s the point. But the Lord has provided the Psalms as part of our journey of spiritual formation. They were part of His life; they were part of the apostles’ lives; they should be a part of our lives as well.

Cultivation, Pt. 2: The narrative

A few things have conspired this week to think about my relationship to literature. One was, the sermon last week was about the discipline of examen, and the pastor recommended journaling; I’m surely not the only parishioner who’s a little more introspective than usual. Another factor is my having recently read and reviewed The Fellowship (about the Inklings), and even the least self-aware person in the world could not read and enjoy that book without thinking to himself, “Why I am I really reading this?”

My previous post had a few preening and self-congratulatory paragraphs about how I’ve managed to cultivate my taste in literature over the past ten years or so. And I allow myself those paragraphs, because the conscious development of my literary taste has been one of the two or three things I really feel I’ve done well as an adult. So I’m going to write a bit more about that.

I have approached literature very much from the outside, largely through pop culture. My story begins with television. I don’t believe I watched an unusual amount of television growing up. Certainly I had no sense that I watched an unusual amount for my peer groups, but it must have been a couple hours every day in high school. I also followed movies very closely (and still do, when I have the opportunity). I became acquainted with Sherlock Holmes, not through A Study in Scarlet, but through Alvin and the Chipmunks and Muppet Babies; the same is true of Treasure Island, Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and countless other works. I have still not read The Three Musketeers, but I recall the 1993 film. I was aware of Count Dracula and Frankenstein though television shows, but I had no idea that Dracula and Frankenstein are respectively pulp fiction and a literary masterpiece (and of course much less idea that Frankenstein is the inventor, not the monster). My entire appreciation of literature was limited to what had filtered through pop culture.

Pop culture still informs my selections, by the way. I’ve just changed the tagline of the blog to a few lines of Tennyson’s Ulysses: “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.” Where did I encounter that poem? In the copy of Selections from Tennyson that now sits on my desk? No, from Skyfall! But I credit myself at least with googling the quoted phrase (“We are not now that strength which once shook heaven and earth…”) and enjoying the poem thereafter.

But I was thinking of my teens. I was not illiterate. I can remember reading Roots in middle school or early high school and enjoying it, and also Les Miserables in later high school and being deeply moved by it. (Those titles suggest that I estimated literary merit by the thickness of the book.) Outside of those two books, I do not believe I read much that was worthwhile.

College provided some important footholds. My university education did not have a literary focus, but I had a couple of excellent courses in Shakespeare and Milton, which my grandfather recommended to me. In break times I enjoyed reading books by Dostoevsky and Alan Paton.

The initial impetus for me to read more broadly was surely a desire to have read the important books. That is not a commendable desire in itself—the desire to be “in the know”—but it ended well for me. At some point I read The Lord of the Rings and enjoyed it. Treasure Island was not one of the earlier books I read, but it stands out in memory because it was one of the first classics that was enjoyable in itself: not as a classic that one had to read, but simply as a good-and-not-very-difficult book. Even before that point I had read enough Shakespeare to become accustomed to the language and enjoy Shakespeare, but I think I will remember my surprise delight at Treasure Island as the more significant life event.

Pop culture; a general knowledge of the titles; references to great works by other authors—these provided a long list of books. I have not, by any stretch, read all of the obvious books. I mentioned The Three Musketeers, but there are plenty of obvious books that, to my shame, I have not read: Augustine’s Confessions, War and Peace, The Wealth of Nations, and Don Quixote are all still on the list. Name recognition has heuristic value.

The more significant ‘discovery’ I had made was in what is called ‘reading backwards’. The idea is that instead of reading in a certain genre, you try to find out the influences on your favorite authors. So for instance, if one enjoys The Lord of the Rings, then one might look for further novels in the fantasy genre. That’s one way to go. But to reading backwards means looking for the books that influenced Tolkien, and reading those next.  I was slow to appreciate the importance of this. In fact, I certainly traced ideas in linguistics and even theology back through publications before I did the same in literature.

For instance, I appreciated C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy as brilliant imaginative and moral works. But Lewis acknowledges George MacDonald as his master, and indeed, if you read just one of MacDonald’s fantasy novels, you’ll see that Lewis cannot be accused of false modesty. That Hideous Strength is the most delightfully weird book of the Space Trilogy. It turns out to have been influenced by the novels of Charles Williams, who easily exceeds Lewis in his ability to fold magic, philosophy, and theology into novels. And again—to round out the Inklings—Tolkien was influenced by William Morris. So far I have only read The House of the Wolfings from Morris, but in reading even that one book, one can hardly stop from exclaiming over and over, “So this is what Tolkien was going for!”

So. I think I can say with sober judgment that I have succeeded in cultivating in myself an appreciation of quality literature—or at least that I have made a start. And there was no magical formula to achieve this: just the slow influence, over a decade, of opting for quality literature, which eventually became automatic. The original question was: why?

The easiest explanation is that alluded to earlier, a crude desire to have read the important books; to be informed on literary ideas; to understand the allusions people make. I don’t actually think this is true of me. Vanity has always been an easy sin for me to avoid, because I just don’t care about fitting in with a group. Being a linguist is really my least favorite part about linguistics, for instance. Perhaps at some level I derive pleasure from imagining myself an intellectual peer or Dostoevsky, Paton, Tolkien, Hammarskjöld and the rest; but they’re all dead, and, at any rate, I couldn’t even imagine myself getting along with most of them. There are a few author-centered discussion groups that I enjoy and participate in, but discussion has always been a secondary pleasure. I keep things mostly to myself. (Take a moment to appreciate the irony of that statement in this context. Nevertheless, I stand by it.) I will own that when an author refers to a work of literature that I have read, there is a feeling of pleasure; and when I have not read it, a corresponding pain.

I think there is a more fundamental desire to be able to appreciate things. For years, going to a museum was a stressful experience for me, because I was so frustrated by my inability to appreciate what I was seeing. Even now, I can really only manage by indulging my bourgeois eagerness to have seen the famous paintings or artifacts in person, and observing lack of sophistication with irony. Music, albeit to a lesser extent, produces the same frustrations. Literature, for whatever reason, is an easier point of entry. (Perhaps it is a person inclination toward text: I am the person who goes from painting to painting in the museum reading the plaques.) When I read an appreciation of Pope’s poetry—which I have not yet succeeded in enjoying—there is a feeling on my part of loss, of having missed something, of personal failure at not appreciating the work of one who is so widely esteemed.

Judging a work by its popularity is of course ridiculous, and it is also true that tastes vary. Nevertheless, if I read a play written by Shakespeare and am unable to appreciate it, where is the fault more likely to lie? My outlook on these matters, as reflected in this paragraph in particular, assumes that there is objective value to works of art. It’s not terribly important to me to know whether we can have objective knowledge about that. I would certainly reject the conflation of statements such as, “Crime and Punishment is a great novel,” and “Many people enjoy reading Crime and Punishment”. I do not wish to be a slave to my personal inclinations.

So, in the best sense, my desire to appreciate literature is a desire to be more fully human: to appreciate what we have achieved as a species, to celebrate what we have done best. There is a dark side to it: an acquisitiveness. Desire can become greediness. (I mean something beyond the desire to have read rather than the desire to read.) I’ve thought more about this recently, and I am not sure where it will end up.

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