This placard was displayed near the cream and sugar at the local Starbucks yesterday:
“New Music We Love” next a promo photo for the new Alicia Keys album. But this is not a particularly faithful caption. It would be more accurate to say, “We are being paid a suitcase full of cash from RCA Records marketing department to promote this album in our 20,000+ retail locations, so here you go!” Whoever “we” is doesn’t “love” this music, however good it is, any more than they “loved” whatever the people in charge of shop decoration were being paid to promote last month. This doesn’t come as news to anyone of course. We are saturated in a world of marketing and advertising, now more than ever. We are, in theory at least, aware of it even as we swim in it. It’s been lamented and commented on by people of every persuasion in essays for decades now.
Even as far back as 1955, we find Merton discussion the same thing:
Do we know what it means to praise? To adore? To give glory? Praise is cheap today. Everything is praised. Soap, beer, toothpaste, clothing, mouthwash, movie stars, all the latest gadgets which are supposed to make life more comfortable – everything is constantly being “praised.” Praise is now so overdone that everybody is sick of it, and since everything is “praised” with the official hollow enthusiasm of the radio announcer, it turns out in the end that NOTHING is praised. Praise has become empty. Nobody really wants to use it.
Are there any superlatives left for God? They have all been wasted on foods and quack medicines. There is no word left to express our adoration of Him who alone is Holy, who alone is Lord.
-Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms, p.10
The extreme overuse of the word “awesome” is maybe the best example of the kind of language degradation Merton is talking about here. Think of how much this has intensified sixty years too. Merton himself would barely live long enough to see the advent of color television.
In his survey of postmodernism, Leithart addresses this same phenomenon in which this ubiquity of “praise” has corrupted language and communication at a deep level.
Communications media encourage a skeptical cynicism toward knowledge in general. Especially in urban settings, many of us are “supersaturated” with media and advertisements, bombarded by messages from anonymous sellers and senders whose only interest in us is our credit card limit. The proliferation of anonymous messages tempts the thought that messages exist independently of persons, that the messages are not communications but mere “texts.” The “death of the author” proclaimed by postmodern theory is partly a recognition that the author vanishes to nothing in contemporary media. Try this test: Can you list three advertising taglines? Then, can you name a single advertising copywriter?
-Peter Leithart, Solomon Among the Postmoderns, p.64
At first glance, this can all be rather discouraging. I know that personally this has been the source of much angst over the years. How can we sing Jerusalem’s praise in a strange land where our “awesome” words have no meaning? The best worship we can bring seems trite and dead on arrival.
I’ve heard a variety of prescriptions over the years to combat this. One is to “plunder the Egyptians” and make sure Christian music and culture really kicks ass. If you love the many-layered synth production on the latest Hillsong United album, then you might still think this plan shows promise. Many of us are not particularly convinced, for all kinds of historical reasons, not to mention a few theological ones.
Another attempt is to recover the golden age of high Christian art, studying and singing the works of Bach and the best harmonies from Tallis to Beethoven. This can feel rather fabulous within its ecosystem of trained singers and listeners, but like a foreign static to the bulk of our neighbors.
Ah, so our neighbors need to be educated! Fixing education, bringing back great books, classics, and doing the true work of education as Aristotle described it, “to learn to love what one ought to love”, is the way. If we can heal our trashed and abused language, then we’ll be able to call pizza another word besides “awesome” again so all the Holy praise can come back to life in contrast.
I’m not really against any of these aforementioned ideas, but I have difficulty maintaining my enthusiasm for them. They all sound like a lot of work – a strenuous uphill climb that seems to take on a life very much apart from the Gospel of Christ, which somehow manages to meet us in our lowliest state, even with f-bombs and other curses on our lips.
And so I was encouraged to find a different prescription from Merton: to pray the psalms. He is convinced that they still (and will permanently) transcend any defects our language and listening may acquire. Heavy scholarship is not required, only a very little faith.
The Church indeed likes what is old, not because it is old but rather because it is “young.” In the Psalms, we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection. We return to the youthful strength and directness with which the ancient psalmists voiced their adoration of the God of Israel. Their adoration was intensified by the ineffable accents of new discovery: for the Psalms are the songs of men who knew who God was. If we are to pray well, we too must discover the Lord to whom we speak, and if we use the Psalms in our prayer we will stand a better chance of sharing in the discovery which lies hidden in their words for all generations. For God has willed to make Himself known to us in the mystery of the Psalms.
What God has willed to make known to us through his particular gift of the Psalter, no mass media flood or deconstructionist philosophy can thwart. Our verbalization and reenactment of it is a clear way forward through the fog.
I recently returned from my 2nd trip to Ethiopia. The first time was when I traveled with my wife to adopt my youngest daughter almost exactly five years earlier. I’ve had a lot of people ask me about my trip and I’ve found it to be a bit difficult to explain as it doesn’t fit neatly into categories for reasons people typically travel.
It wasn’t really a vacation. I visited almost zero tourist destinations while I was there and didn’t stay anywhere fancy. Very little relaxation happened. On the other hand, it was very refreshing and interesting and exciting – as much as I could ever hope for from a vacation.
It wasn’t really a mission trip. It wasn’t organized by a church or other aid organization and I didn’t petition anyone for money. On the other hand, several people DID donate money for a significant amount of specialized supplies and I did spend most of my days there supporting (or rather learning how to support) two different indigenous Christian aid organizations.
It was a personal/family trip. I wanted to find as much of my adopted daughter’s family and extended family as I reasonably could. I wanted to give them pictures and gifts and tell them how she was doing and also learn as much as I could about her family history. When people would ask why I was going, this is what I would tell them, even though this ultimately consumed only two of the twelve days I was there, mostly due to a lot of prep work ahead of time.
It was an exploratory trip. I have read probably 20 books about Ethiopia since visiting there 5 years ago, but I wanted to experience it again first-hand and figure out what I was missing. In particular, I wanted to learn what it would be like to move the family and live there for a while – not just visit. Would that be feasible or not? Learning things is deeply satisfying in itself and the trip turned out to be a lot more interesting than surfing the internet for esoteric information. I met a lot of people that could help me answer these questions and made some new friends, which is what I was hoping for.
My American friends asked why I didn’t take the entire family. The answer is that I would love to, but I think it would be a lot more enjoyable for them (and less exhausting for my wife and I) if they were a few years older than they are now. The other big reason is that six round-trip airplane tickets would alone cost nearly $8000 and I don’t have that kind of money laying around. My wife and my oldest daughter spent two weeks in South Africa with friends last year, so this trip was sort of “my turn”.
My Ethiopian friends there asked why I didn’t at least bring my wife with me. This is the sort of question that demonstrates the classic divide between western and African ways of thinking about time and family. Many of them live in compounds with a host of extended family nearby. There are also numerous household servants close at hand, even among relatively poor families. There are always lots of people around to keep an eye on the kids. In America? Nada. Mom and Dad are pretty much the entire show. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles often live many hours or even days of travel away. Even one evening away from the children can require complicated babysitter coordination and cost the equivalent of a month’s wages in their currency. Leaving your employer for more than few days can be downright impossible, depending on where you work. Praise God that that particular hurdle could finally be cleared this time as my current employer and coworkers are fabulous and accommodating. We in America may be very rich, but it comes at a great cost. We pay the price in stress and disconnected relationships and we often don’t even know where to begin to heal these rifts. Incidentally, this is another reason I wanted to visit and observe life there up close – to possibly learn a clue or two toward this kind of healing.
So was the trip a success? Absolutely. Although I didn’t get all of my questions answered, I discovered a lot of things I didn’t even know existed. I guess that made it a real adventure – the unpredictability.
I got to meet several of my daughter’s relatives and I learned many things about her ethnicity and culture and history. I didn’t get to meet everyone I wanted to, partly due to the restricted travel – the police were strictly enforcing a 6:00 PM curfew in the town where some of the family lived and none of my friends or helpers I recruited were keen to drive there. Still, all the gifts and pictures made it to the people who were my daughter’s early (though temporary) caregivers.
I got to preach (with a translator) at a Christian worship service of mostly blind people. I also got to sing for them there and later at what turned out to be a very long and very charismatic prayer meeting. I got to visit a special school for the blind whose existence is only the most vaporous of rumours on the internet. I got to quietly give gifts nearly everywhere I went and got something even better in return – to listen to people’s stories and see part of their “normal” day-to-day life up close. The staff of the guest house I stayed at were especially friendly and invited me to their humble lunches and low-key coffee ceremonies throughout the day. Those were some of the best times. Though virtually all social media was blocked on the internet in Ethiopia (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Viber, etc.) I was still able to send a receive email with little interruption. This allowed me to regularly share pictures and talk with my wife back home. The only tragedy was losing my passport – prompting a rather frantic trip to the U.S. Embassy where everything was fixed in far less time than I deserve.
And as for the future? I now have a handful of clear (and some not-so-clear) goals moving forward. It will likely be a few years before I return, but I won’t be losing contact with folks there this time.
For more details and pictures, see these related posts:
I’ll continue to post a few more scraps about the trip here, but if you want to know specifics, send me an email.
Evangelical tracts can sometimes be home to some amazing artwork. While I was in Ethiopia, I came across a gospel pamphlet (both in Amharic and Afaan Oromo!) that features this incredible picture of Jesus performing an exorcism, Dragonball Z style.
On one hand, I can say this cartoon is pretty silly, while at the same time admitting that I believe this is a completely legit stylized representation of what Jesus ACTUALLY DOES. I’m completely serious.
For election night here in the USA, I present to you this tale recorded by the Venerable Bede. I discovered this story earlier in the year in the Celtic Miscellany and have been saving it since.
King Oswin had given an extraordinary fine horse to Bishop Aidan, to use either in crossing rivers, or in performing a journey upon any urgent necessity, though the Bishop was wont to travel ordinarily on foot.
Some short time after, a poor man meeting the Bishop, and asking alms, he immediately dismounted, and ordered the horse, with all his royal trappings, to be given to the beggar; for he was very compassionate, a great friend to the poor, and, in a manner, the father of the wretched.
This being told to the king, when they were going in to dinner, he said to the Bishop, “What did you mean, my lord Bishop, by giving the poor man that royal horse, which it was fitting that you should have for your own use?
“Had not we many other horses of less value, or things of other sorts, which would have been good enough to give to the poor, instead of giving that horse, which I had chosen and set apart for your own use?”
Thereupon the Bishop answered, “What do you say, O king? Is that son of a mare more dear to you than that son of God?”
Upon this they went in to dinner, and the Bishop sat in his place; but the king, who had come in from hunting, stood warming himself, with his attendants, at the fire.
Then, on a sudden, whilst he was warming himself, calling to mind what the bishop had said to him, he ungirt his sword, and gave it to a servant, and hastened to the Bishop and fell down at his feet,’ beseeching him to forgive him;
“For from this time forward,” said he, “I will never speak any more of this, nor will I judge of what or how much of our money you shall give to the sons of God.”
The bishop was much moved at this sight, and starting up, raised him, saying that he was entirely reconciled to him, if he would sit down to his meat and lay aside all sorrow. The king, at the bishop’s command and request, began to be merry, but the bishop, on the other hand, grew so melancholy as to shed tears. His priest then asked him, in the language of his country, which the king and his servants did not understand, why he wept.
“I know,” said he, “that the king will not live long; for I never before saw so humble a king; whence I perceive that he will soon be snatched out of this life, because this nation is not worthy of such a ruler.” Not long after, the bishop’s gloomy foreboding was fulfilled by the king’s death, as has been said above. But Bishop Aidan was also taken out of this world, twelve days after the king he loves, on the 31st of August, 651, to receive the eternal reward of his labours form our Lord.
I’m really enjoying several of the books I picked up in Ethiopia at a small shop near the Orthodox seminary. They are in English and published by very small operations. They have no ISBNs and I assure you none of them are available on Amazon. The authors don’t show up if you Google their names. This was exactly the sort of thing I was hoping to find – stuff the internet doesn’t know anything about.
On of the books is a collection of popular sayings or stories entitled “Dramatic Entertaining Short Stories <Parables> for English Speaking Tourists” compiled by Megabie Aelaf and Rev. Mekbib Atnaw. Many of the stories are connected to some illustration from scripture. Here are a couple of my favorites:
There was an American pastor who used to be an amateur boxer. One day a city gambler came to his Church and said, “There is a teaching in the gospel that it is hard to accept. It says ‘if somebody slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him. Are you able to carry out this teaching practically?'” The pastor said, “Yes I can”. “May I slap you?” asked the gambler. The pastor offered his right cheek, and the gambler slapped him. The Pastor remained patient and turned his left cheek and was slapped again. But when the gambler wanted to slap him a third time, the pastor rolled up his sleeves and made a fist. He said, “The book did not allow you to slap me three times, but only twice.” (Matthew 5:39)
The editor goes on to explain that taking up arms to repel a foreign invader is just and that all good Christian men, even priests, should be ready to do so if the need arises.
Here is some interesting analysis that uses bone placement to argue for the equality of men and women:
Universal Interpretations On Natural Equality of Men & Women
If a man is the head of his wife, she is the crown of her husband (Proverbs 12:10). SO this word proves their unique and natural equality of both husband and wife from the beginning of Creation.
1. She was not made out of his head to have ruling authority over her husband.
2. Nor out of his fee to be trembled upon by him.
3. He created her from a one out of his side to be equal with him.
4. He created her from a bone under his arm to be protected by her husband, and
5. from a bone near his heart that she may be beloved and dear to him.
It is wonderful to see the work of the Holy Spirit how He has combined the Interpretations of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Scholars with Mathew Henry the Anglican Great Bible Commentator who lived in a long distance more than 10,000 files away.
Matthew Henry’s old commentary may not be that great, but man, the guy gets around!
Finally, I loved this story about two holy men – one who prayed all the time and the other who didn’t pray at all.
A large monastery was ready to celebrate its big anniversary. The abbot and other leading monks chose one of the monks who dedicated all his time for prayer shutting himself in a cell for 40 years and he supposed to be a great righteous and holy man of God in the sight of men. He was sent along with a humble, good and faithful servant to fetch green grass (reeds or bulrush) to spread out and furnish the floor of their meeting hall. The monk murmured in his heart saying, “I am honorable righteous hermit who shut myself in a cell for about 40 years. I am a holy man of God. How can they send me with this illiterate and secular person who could not know how to pray except manual work – cooking for the monks, cleaning the compound of the monastery, carrying quintals of grain and vegetable.”
Yes, it was true. The humble servant did not have time for church service except cooking, cleaning, washing the clothes of all monks of the monastery. He did not pray at all. His total concern was how to take care of the monks, and help the weak and old men in his good work. He really was very obedient to all those who lived in the monastery.
He used to fetch water from a very remote area. He was the one who always took care of some domestic animals which belonged to the monastery. He sometimes was plowing the land with oxen. So all his happiness was by helping others rather than himself. When both of them reached their destiny to cut the green grass, it was heavily raining and the whole area was flooded with water. The humble, good and faithful servant entered the sea and began to walk on the surface of the water just as our Lord Jesus Christ walked on the water (Matt. 15:26) as on dry land. But the other monk or hermit who was supposed great righteous man could not enter even the edge of the sea. He was afraid to follow the humble servant. The faithful servant said to him, “Father, please come on how can such a righteous man like you be afraid of walking on the water?”.
The proud hermit said to himself, “Honestly speaking I did not reach the rank of this humble servant of God. My own righteousness has been taken away from me. It may be because of my vain pride. I should have to examine myself again and again in the living word of God the almighty”.
Then, when the humble faithful servant came out from the sea with a load of green grass, the proud hermit fell on his fee and asked him forgiveness, because of his vain talks against him. For he had esteemed him just like a secular person. The Hermit was without understanding of God’s special way how he leads men to righteousness.
There are lots of NGOs and Christian ministries doing things in Ethiopia for women’s health, HIV, agriculture, and many other causes. However, there are very few people doing anything for the blind, despite an unusually high number of blind and visually impaired people in the country – somewhere around 2 million people total. You hear about the occasional 1-week cataract surgery trip by western doctors here and there and that’s cool, but it doesn’t help anyone trying to make it living in the blind world. Those trips just quickly transfer people back to the sighted world with a (relatively) simple medical procedure. Where that can be done, it’s great, but for most people, there is no magic surgery that will help them out. What they need is love, support, education, and advocacy, and of course the gospel unobscured.
It took me a long time and a lot of phone calls to find someone doing this kind of work in the country, but finally my prayers were answered when I happened to be connected first with Tafesse, a traveling evangelist currently residing in the USA and his friend Berhanu, a blind man back in Ethiopia who two years ago organized Zena Wengel ministries to reach out to the blind in Addis Ababa and the surrounding cities. After much email correspondence with him, I was invited to come sing and preach at one of the Saturday gatherings they put together last week.
(Above is a pano from the balcony, click for a higher-res version.)
We met at the Misrach Center, a vocational training center for blind adults. My wife and I had actually visited this place before on our first trip to Ethiopia as it’s in a well-known location near the center of town in the Arat Kilo area. It is a secular organization, but occasionally outside groups are able to borrow meeting space there. I met a ton of people and had had a big lunch. There were maybe 50 folks there, most of them blind. I think my Amharic went over pretty well. A couple of Ethiopian ladies led some songs, then I did some, and then I spoke via a translator on the parable of the 99 and 1 sheep. Afterwards, a couple people gave testimonies and they handed out letters of appreciation to the volunteers.
I was late getting there because we had to pick up a bunch of people on the way in a crazy back-alley part of town.
A fair amount of people there had collapsible canes, but most in terrible states of use. None of them had working tips. Usually the bottom section was snapped off or something. We gave a brand new cane to this pastor that was visiting from Ambo (out of town several hours drive) and he was pretty happy. We also gave him one of the audio bibles I brought with me. His cane was used to death. Having the cane be bright and reflective is a big deal here since apparently traffic accidents are THE big risk for blind people trying to live independently. Berhanu wanted to do some stuff in the afternoon too with all the folks there, but cut it short so everyone could leave in time to get back home before the curfew, as some of the people lived a ways out of town. Several there had friends who had been thrown into jail for a few days for being out after dark in the past week.
There was lots of clapping and shouting at the service of course – not quite like baptists in the states! They are not affiliated with any particular denomination, though many of them attend Mekane Yesus congregations.
Later in the week we visited several other friends associated with the ministry and talked about what their needs were moving forward. One of these is a permanent space for a resource room near the center of the city where most of the blind reside or frequently travel to. You can learn a lot more at their website, especially in the PDF newsletters.
On Monday, October 24th, I traveled with Berhanu, Tsehay, and Tafesse from Zena Wengal Ministries to the school for the blind in Sebeta. The bulk of the materials I had collected to donate were to go there. The blue star on the map pictured is the approximate location of the school compound.
So, I packed all the supplies up in a box, inflated the soccer balls, and we headed out this morning at about 9:00 AM. Everyone wanted to go early so we’d have plenty of time to get back before the curfew. On the map, it looks like it’s a 10 minute drive from the edge of the city, but it’s more like an hour. Soooooo many donkeys on the road! I also started to see mostly signs in Oromifa. Still looks like Addis, but with fewer tall buildings and a lot more trees.
The school itself is in a large wooded compound. Very nice. They had a tactile map. The buildings though were all built in the late 60s and so it’s pretty run down. This is the only school for the blind run by the government. There are a handful of other smaller ones around the country run by churches.
We met with the director and his assistant and one of the teachers there and told them all about what were were doing and how we wanted to help, but also how we would follow up to make sure things were being put to good use and if possible, arrange for more assistance in the future. The director is pretty new, a young man who grew up in Sebeta. The assistant is a young lady. About half the teachers are blind themselves as far as I can tell.
We visited several classes that were going on. A couple were being taught in Oromifa, and one in Amharic. There were tons of blind kids, both younger and older walking around the whole time. They mostly lock arms and travel in groups of two or three. About half had a cane of some sort, but it was usually just a stick or straight cane with the bottom snapped off.
In the classrooms, they used these large full-size slates. The problem was, each classroom had only two or three available, so the other kids sat around with nothing to do but listen, until it was their turn with it. In class, the kids seemed really bored. Outside, they were typically chatty. One group of girls was listening to Amharic pop music on her cell phone. Another group of older boys was laughing and joking. Some little girls were playing a game. Some kids the same age as my youngest son were playing soccer. Here is a video:
Improvised blind football
A lot of the kids wore blue uniforms. It seemed like a few had some light perception, but the bulk of them were completely blind. There were two girl’s dorm buildings and three boys ones. Each held about 40 kids.
We also visited the library, which had a wide range of oldy moldy stuff all the way to some very new books in English. I saw some stuff from Lutheran Braille Workers in there, though it was mostly secular textbooks. There was also a computer room that had some giant magnifier screens, for the “partials” as they called them. Didn’t see any Perkins braillers, but they said there were a couple in one of the older kid’s classrooms. Supposedly there is a closet somewhere with a ton of broken ones in it. (I spoke to Berhanu about training some blind person who is handy with tools to be able to fix them and keep ’em running perpetually in the country. This can be their source of income too.)
One of the craziest things, that I didn’t expect, was the kitchen. They used a hot wood-fired stove and a gal was making shiro wat in a huge caldron. In the next room, several ladies were making injera. There were huge sacks of teff in the corner. It was really smokey!
We also visited a music classroom where a blind teacher was having some kids work on their scales on some electric keyboards. There was a line of kids at the door as they took turns as there were only 4 keyboards.
You could always tell Muslim girls because of the headscarves. About 15% of them were Muslim as far as I can tell.
After the tour we went back in and I showed them all the stuff and they tried them out. I showed them how to cut the canes to length. We didn’t end up handing them out to individual kids that day, but Tafesse is going to follow up on it all in a few weeks. One of the teachers was especially enthusiastic about your magnetic math board. He had never seen anything like it and said it could be really handy. Hopefully the slates make it into classrooms right away.
The woman that teaches cane mobility was unfortunately in a car accident last week and was not there. She is at home healing up though and should be ok eventually. Berhanu will check in with her later.
In the future, several of them agreed that the full-size slates would be the most useful. We took pics of a couple of them to follow up. They are made by some company in India and though they are plastic, seem to work pretty well.
A few facts I learned. Most of the teachers there make the same as other government school teachers, about $100/month. The director makes about $200/month. The kids stay in the dorms until they pass grade 6. (The ages are all over the place, it’s pretty mixed). Then they have to live outside the compound and are given a $20/month stipend. Most of them group up and find a small apartment to rent. After they pass grade 8, then they can go on to study at the regular high school in town. Only the most clever can cut it because at that point, they are thrown in with all the sighted kids. A handful go on to university.
It was definitely interesting and it felt really nice to have something obviously useful to give. What a contrast most of the kids were to Abi, who is super well-adjusted and normal and with sit-up-straight good manners and bright personality! There were a few go-getters here and there though. I think some of the kids end up doing well by force of will despite the poor conditions.
I talked to Berhanu and company (Tafesse and Tsehay) about a lot of the stuff my wife is most concerned about – how it is better to meet people where they live and educate them and their families there rather than gather them together and take them somewhere else centrally. They heartily agreed and said that they aren’t really interested in starting another blind school, although that could probably still be useful in some places at as there are so few currently. I told them about Beverly at Global Cane Outreach doing the rural cane crash courses and you wanting to figure out how to do something similar with braille literacy and they though that sounded really great. Taffesse is the evangelist of course, so he is always looking at it from a gospel delivery standpoint and giving people hope, where as Berhanu is more thinking about economics and mechanics.
This cool painting was hanging up in the office.
This week, my train of thought, along with months (and psychologically, years) of planning and preparation have been trod over and stomped on by recent violence in the streets in Ethiopia. Pictures of burnt out cars and protests in the very city I was to be visiting and making new friends and meeting extended family has made me sad and angry.
It is in the context of all this that I found this passage from Thomas Merton particularly arresting. I reproduce the whole passage here as it doesn’t appear to be available anywhere else on the web in plain text.
An alienated space, an uninhabited space, is a space where you submit.
You stay where you are put, even though this cannot really be called “living.” You stop asking questions about it and you know there is not much point in making any complaint. (Business is not interested in your complaint, only in your rent.) “I live on X Street.” Translated: “X Street is the place where I submit, where I give in where I quit.” (The best thing to do with such a street is pull down the blinds and open a bottle of whiskey.)
Can a street be an inhabited space?
This question begins to take shape. We begin to guess the answer.
To acquire inhabitants, the street will have to be changed. Something must happen to the street. Something must be done to it. The people who are merely provisionally present, half-absent non-persons must now become really present on the street as themselves. They must be recognizable as people. Hence, they must recognize each other as people. (Business is not about to recognize them as people, only as consumers.)
They must be present on the street not simply as candidates for the local shell game, or for manipulation by loan sharks, or for a beating, or for exploitation, or for ridicule, or for total neglect.
Instead of submitting to the street, they must change it.
Instead of being formally and impersonally put in their place by the street, they must transform the street and make it over so that it is livable.
The street can be inhabited if the people on it begin to make their life credible by changing their environment.
Living is more than submission: it is creation.
To live is to create one’s own world as a scene of personal happiness.
How do you do that?
Various approaches have been tried.
For instance, you can tear the place apart.
This does, admittedly, have points. It is a way of reminding business, the city, the fuzz, etc. that you are there, that you are tired of being a non-person, that you are not just a passive machine for secreting indefinite amounts of submission. It may get you a TV set or a case of liquor or a new suit. It may even (if the operation is on a larger scale) get you a whole new building. (Though the honeycomb you live in may be replaced by a better one for somebody else.)
But the trouble with this approach is:
– It does not make the street any more habitable.
– It does not make life on this street any more credible.
– It does not make anybody happy.
– It does not change the kind of space the street is.
– It does not change the city’s negative idea of itself and of its streets.
– It accepts the idea that the street is a place going someplace else.
It accepts the street as a tunnel, the city as a rabbit warren. It takes for granted what business and money and the fuzz and everyone else takes for granted: that the street is an impersonal tube for “circulation” of traffic, business, and wealth, so that consequently all the real action is someplace else. That life really happens inside the buildings. But for life to happen inside buildings, it must first find expensive buildings to happen in – downtown or in the suburbs where the money goes along with the traffic.
Violence in the street is all right as an affirmation that one does not submit, but it fails because it accepts the general myth of the street as a no-man’s-land, as battleground, as no place. Hence, it is another kind of submission. It takes alienation for granted. Merely to fight in the street is to protest in desperation, that one is unable to change anything. So in the long run it is another way of giving up.
-Thomas Merton, Love and Living, p.48-50
Constraint really is the key component of art. Taking the constraint as a given and then trying to push the limits of it to express an idea is where all the interesting things are at. The artist may work on a canvas and their frustration at being “boxed in” may make them wish the canvas away. But take it away and they are left adrift on an ocean where the noise of the world swallows up all the potential meaning, expression, and communication. But struggle IN the box, and you can produce great and even utterly amazing things. There’s a quote laying around somewhere from Brian Eno talking about pushing the limits of early digital audio that captures some of this well. Ah, here it is:
“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”
My 9-year-old son is doing this right now with Minecraft. I just think of him having fun building stuff, just like someone might have fun building with Legos and there is that, but there is also much more. He was extremely excited today to show me something he had just built. What was it? A bookshelf with some books on it. Very simple. A couple of them were laying sideways and were different colors. That is all. So why all the enthusiasm? He had pushed the boundaries of the constraints. He had found instructions on how to hack a command block to nudge objects only one pixel in space. In Minecraft, the 16x16x16 textured blocks are a primitive given. But with the hack, you can make small objects and with a lot of patience, produce relatively smooth curves where none should be possible. Any normal 3D modelling software could have produced that bookshelf in a couple minutes with a few simple points and clicks. Woopee. But to produce it in a world bade of clunky huge blocks, to suddenly make something impossibly small and intricate according to the “normal” rules of physics in that world, that was something exciting.
It’s like being given a box of Legos after living in a room full of jumbo Duplos. No, actually that’s a poor analogy. That wouldn’t be nearly as fun. This is like melting down some of your Duplos with matches and remolding the pieces in a hand-carved cast to produce a precious handful of Legos. It is the delight of the child builder to put their mind and hands to this. It is the delight of the painter to get that tree, that face, to fit on the canvas and look, somehow, even more real that it was in the flesh.
The usual accounts of ‘scientific’ method focus (with good reason, in my view) on hypothesis and verification/falsification. We make a hypothesis about what is true, and we go about verifying or falsifying it by further experimentations. But how do we arrive at hypotheses, and what counts as verification or falsification? On the positivistic model, hypotheses are constructed out of the sense-data received, and then go in search of more sense-evidence which will either confirm, modify or destroy the hypotheses thus created.
I suggest that this is misleading. It is very unlikely that one could construct a good working hypotheses out of sense-data alone, and in fact no reflective thinker in any field imagines that this is the case. One needs a larger framework on which to draw, a larger set of STORIES about things that are likely to happen in the world. There must always be a leap, made by the imagination that has been attuned sympathetically to the subject-matter, from the (in principal) random observation of phenomena to the hypotheses of a pattern.
Equally, verification happens not so much by observing random sense-data to see whether they fit with the hypothesis, but by devising means, precisely on the basis of the larger stories (including the hypothesis itself), to ask specific questions about specific aspects of the hypotheses. But this presses the question: in what way do the large stories and the specific data arrive at a ‘fit’? In order to examine this we must look closer at stories themselves.
-N.T. Wright, “Knowledge: Problems and Varieties”, from The New Testament and the People of God, p.37
Good science requires imagination, not just good tools and accurate observation. Science also happens inside of these larger frameworks, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and about the world. Which is why a scientist who shuns philosophy and psychology will be eaten alive by them in course of his own efforts. Our hypothesis don’t happen in a vacuum. We need that air to breathe.