I just finished reading Punished by Rewards by education writer Alfie Kohn. My wife informs me that this book was all the rage in education programs at the university during the mid-1990s. I was asked to read it as part of a book discussion group and figured I should write down a few thoughts. This is a book review of sorts, though it is an opportunity to talk about some larger issues.
First of all, I’ve been spoiled by reading so much N.T. Wright, David Bently Hart, C.S. Lewis and other people that are careful writers and thinkers and who define their words up front. In contrast, THIS book was full of mushy thinking, self-undermining arguments and a disingenuous use of language. Chief among these was the use of the term “reward”, of which the title refers. At various points the word is used to refer to golden stars handed out to elementary students, candy used as bribes for good behavior, all academic grades in general, salary and money paid for work of any kind, verbal praise, lighter punishments, intangible situations in the afterlife and sometimes something as general as any reciprocal social interaction or exchange. Again and again the context changed but the thing being critiqued was supposed to somehow, in the abstract, be mostly the same thing and treated as such with few qualifications.
That’s not to say all the ideas presented in the book are terrible. Some of them seem pretty sound, but it was a very mixed bag. I felt that at the end it mostly served to muddy the waters. I thought he book was going to be long on diagnosis, short on cure, but to his credit, Kohn really does have three fairly substantial chapters of suggestions at the end of the work. The problem is that almost none of them are likely to work – ironically, for the same reasons what he is critiquing doesn’t work. At the end of the day, the author is firmly stuck in the land of Modernism. He correctly identifies problems caused by Modernism, but all he has in his belt are the same old tools used to dig us in the hole in the first place. He has no answers but more of the same in a different form. I’ll get into some specifics in a bit.
The first chapter is a critique of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist psychology and its dehumanizing effects. I was cheering enthusiastically through all of this. Wendel Berry would have approved.
Freedom is just another word for something left to learn: it is the way we refer to the ever-diminishing set of phenomena for which science has yet to specify the causes.
p.6, Summarizing B.F. Skinner’s definition of “freedom”
It was refreshing to hear a secularist critique scientism. I was optimistic at this point.
It is no accident that behaviorism is the [United States'] major contribution to the field of psychology, or that the only philosophical movement native to the U.S. is pragmatism. We are a nation that prefers acting to thinking, and practice to theory; we are suspicious of intellectuals, worshipful of technology, and fixated on the bottom line. We define ourselves by numbers – take-home pay and cholesterol counts, percentiles (how much does your baby weight?) and standardized test scores (how much does your child know?). By contrast, we are uneasy with intangibles and unscientific abstractions such as a sense of well-being or an intrinsic motivation to learn.
Things start to go south though in chapter two where he quotes a passage from Luke (the only scripture reference in the book) and reveals to even the half-witted reader than he has absolutely no grasp on the nature of the gospel. From there the talk runs the gamut of topics from Karma to Marx. With regards to parenting, he is always saying, “Ask the child, ask the child, ask the child.” I wanted to shout, “DUDE! They don’t know! Congratulations – you get to tell them.”
Lots of things we to today are terrible. Like what? Grades are bad, they are a distraction from actual learning. Spanking is bad it just causes resentment. Rewards are bad, they numb the receiver to real passion for the subject. Financial incentives are bad because then people won’t love what they do but only the money that comes from it. Bonuses are bad because they create bad vibes among coworkers. Bribes are unethical (where do these ethics come from anyway?). Competition is bad as it makes kids fight each other. Annual job evals are worthless because only regular continuous feedback is helpful. Giving people outside incentives is manipulation and therefore immoral because… just because.
And how does the author back up all these claims? “Recent research”, “Recent research”, “recent research”. This phrase appears literally hundreds of times throughout this book. It is used to justify virtually every assertion the author makes. Doing X is bad. Why? Recent research. Doing Y is good! Why? Recent research. Why did the chicken cross the road? Recent research. Good grief. Again, no sense of history, no imagination for pre-modern man, etc. The bibliography is practically wall-to-wall psych research from the 1970s. He seems ignorant of virtually all other disciplines as well as the last couple thousand years of human history. Aristotle had some really good things to say about education you know. But screw that, let’s just quote John Dewey some more. Bleh.
At the same time, some of his criticism was right on.
Standardized tests stifle and suffocate the best teachers – the ones who are innovative and creative – while doing little to reform the bad and lazy ones.
Stack ranking has been proven to be an absolutely terrible way to manage employees. A expose on the decline of Microsoft during the past decade found that every single ex-employee interviewed decried the practice as utterly insane. Once a year, every person in a unit (usually about a dozen people) were ranked in order from 1 to 10. Whoever was number 1 got a big raise and whoever was number 10 got fired, no matter what. It didn’t matter if the whole team was great and the number 10 guy was actually pretty good – he got fired. Or if the whole team was mediocre – it didn’t matter, the top guy still got a huge promotion regardless. Totally stupid right? But this went on for years and years with many people absolutely swearing it was a good idea. My friends tell me that schools in Korea do this too. From what I can tell, Ethiopian schools are the same.
Grades really do distract from the joy of learning, but they are only one element of an entire curriculum that, when applied to a large group, is going to forge ahead leaving some people in the dust and others bored on the sideline. Just about every page I read I found myself thinking, “Gee, homeschooling would automatically fix that, and that, and that.” I still think so.
At one point, Kohn talks about how he gave a lecture on all of this at a prestigious prep school. Unbeknownst to him at the time, the students had just finished a week of exams and were in the middle of applying for colleges, many of them trying to get into Harvard. Their applications were packed with extracurricular activities and club participation that was there solely to look good to the admission board – not because they cared one bit about actual activities. After talking about how grades and achievements and rewards were all not truly worth pursuing, one student stood up and asked, “Well, what else is there?” He admits that he had no answer.
I was actually a bit shocked to find he even recounted this story. He then proceeds to continue on his merry way, suggesting in passing that there is more to life than contrived achievements. But what? What!? He doesn’t have an answer. And that is because he is still trapped in modern materialism. Institutional schooling is all he knows. Hyperspecialization and scientism is the still the fallback. It’s the way he was trained. He knows something is terribly wrong, but can’t put his finger on it since his pointing finger is part of the problem. The truth is, you can’t answer any of these questions with psychology. You need philosophy and, dare I say it, theology.
Later, in one of the practical how-to chapters, he gives several suggestions about how to temper your praise of children. His points? I am not making this up:
1. Don’t praise people, only what they do.
2. Make praise as specific as possible (so again, it can be nailed down to an action or event, not a person)
3. Avoid phoney subjective praise. Evaluate performance objectively. (Yeah. Uh huh. Can anyone actually do this?)
There were some more points, but the first one blew me away. After all that talk about the perils of dehumanizing people, here we are back to being as materialist and pragmatic as possible. He needs to take his own advice from earlier in the book and not treat humans as robots. This sort of contradictory thought is everywhere in the work. I think he’s trying hard, but he just doesn’t have the right tools. His faith in science to reform itself appears unending.
At one point, he says that we need to “Decouple the task from the compensation.” You know, there is actually a word for that. It’s called LOVE.
To learn more about love though, you need to start with the fear of the creator – the one who is love itself. Eliminating competition and grades will do nothing to solve the root of our envy and violence. This is a sacred task that requires the dispensation of a supernatural agent – that of the Lord. All these things are excluded from the academy from the get-go, which is why all they have left is idle talk.
Still, to flip yet again, some of his advice was not bad. What is your child ALREADY engaged in? Start there to teach him new things. We constantly teach by example all day long. Go meta! Explain what you are doing. If you can’t get rid of grades, at least explain why they are in place and take some of the edge off them. Don’t let them remain a powerful mystery symbol. Natural consequences are best – avoid contrived situations.
Oddly enough, one of the best parts of the book was an appendix near the end where he spends about ten pages discussing the difficulties of defining what “intrinsic motivation” really is. He brings up some really good points and shows how the phrase is used in different contexts to mean different things and that when we discuss it we need to be aware of the various pieces of baggage. In my opinion, this sort of thing shouldn’t have been hidden in the back, but made front and center in the thesis of the work. If you are going to talk about something challenging, then call it out up front and do all you can to prevent your readers from getting confused or derailed. Don’t let things get muddy.
I concluded that about 80% of the advice in the book could be recovered if the context were discussed a bit more and an age qualification given. Some of Kohns ideas will only work with young adults, others only with very young children, but he almost never makes a distinction, preferring to treat everyone from babies to people in vocational colleges in the abstract. It doesn’t work. Perhaps in twenty years this author’s work has gotten more refined and nuanced. I hope so. Behaviorism is still in need of some serious push-back today.
I ended up feeling the same way about this book as I did about much of Robert Bly’s Iron John. With that work, you had a secular modernist that couldn’t shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong with modernism. BUT, the only cure he could come up with was more modernism. In Bly’s case, he was forced to admit that something about modern feminism was destructive to men and so he turned to Jung and mythology to try and poetically bolster a masculine ideal. Nice try, but an imagined sacred just doesn’t cut the mustard. You need a real one. The same is true for this book. Using the most recent 20 years of ivory-tower output to trash the 20 years before it only goes so far. It’s like trying to clean up a mess with dirty rags.
When you name something, you declare that you own it. You name your children and they take that name and use it and affirm your declaration. You may name your house, or your horse, or your musical instrument as well. You are not just describing the thing in question, but personalizing it, claiming it, connecting it to yourself.
In Genesis 1:27 we see God create man and women. They have no names at this point. In the next chapter, we find that God has named his special single child Adam. In 2:22, the woman is made from Adam’s rib. Adam describes who she is (“She shall be called Woman for she was taken out of Man.”), but she is still nameless at this point. Meanwhile Adam names all the living creatures. The Lord brings them to Adam to see what he will call them. Creation is given to the dominion of the man and the woman. Throughout Genesis 3, Adam is Adam, but the woman is just the woman. Then in verses 16-19, God pronounces his terrible curse on the man and the woman.
The very first thing Adam does in verse 20 after the curse is to name the woman Eve. That is the first occurrence. She is now the possession of Adam. And Eve lets this happens. She loves him, even as she hates him. They are estranged from God and from each other but the connections to both their creator and their spouse are of the impossibly deep kind that can never be loosed. She will always be lonely without him and utterly lonely without her creator. In his flailing and grasping and failing, Adam will reach to create a meaningful existence for himself. He will build cities and empires. He will oppress Eve along the way, but then he will love Eve. He has to.
Naming Eve is a curse that can’t be wholly undone before the fullnes of all redemption. The body is baptized, but it has been owned and cursed with desire after the husband. This needs bodily resurrection to be properly reset.
As I write this I’m listening to a slow and high violin solo. I can’t help but draw things together.
The violinist plays ever so gently the harmonic tone, exactly in the middle of the string. What makes it sound so mysterious? It can’t quite decide if it is the octave below or the one above. It is never wholly the one or the other. Your mind tries to attach to it and file it away, to properly name it. That is what Adam does. He names everything he sees and hears. But when he hears the harmonic, he stops and listens a little longer. Finally, in a distracted fog, missing the next few notes, he gives it a name, but even then he doubts. Perhaps it has another name. Can something be two things at once? Even so, it is like unto himself. He named Eve as an other, but sometimes she is so much Adam, just taking up a slightly different space. His own existence and nature of creation is a mystery. So mysteries like unto his own are just slightly disturbing as they remind him of his own origin and his own incompleteness.
This is why, in the new Jerusalem, we are neither married nor given in marriage. For the redemption of our split of being is not to be found in the wedding of couples. That is a substitution image for now, but when there is no need for the light of the sun or the moon (Revelation 21:23), there will no longer be a need for that union as well. The redemption Chrisy aims to bring does not unify this difference like a “better” marriage, but dissolves it for something entirely better. That is why those who make a great fuss about gender, be it professors of “women’s studies” or patriarchs lording it over their wives and daughters, are not actually participating in the healing of mankind. To emphasize our differences is honest, but it is to live in the past and the present. The love of Christ pushes us into the future, where no daughter is given in marriage. In the same way, women’s societies that revel in their independent professionalism, their desert of equal rights, or even their breast feeding, are asserting things that cannot heal the rift. This is equally true of men on elder boards that fail to listen to their wives. They aren’t healing anything either.
What is the reason that Christ’s ministry on earth not exhibit a sexual element? He is the firstborn of the new creation. He needs no sexual union, no husband-wife relationship, to fully express his humanity. This is extremely telling, is it not? It was not good for Adam to be alone, so then Eve. But the second Adam had no Eve, and yet was not alone. To do the will of his father was his bread and oxygen. When we are raised on last day, we will see him, and when we see him we shall be like him (1 John 3:2). Our union with Christ will supersede our substitute unions to the daughters of Eve in the meantime. Women will be truly free then – free from the name Adam gave to them, free from their desire for him – and able to properly give and receive love from their creator. They will be unbroken. Depression and weakness will be things of the past. The same is true for all the sons of Adam. They will be made new – unbroken and non-depleting. Their ambition for false things will finally dry up for all ages. In the vision in Revelation 3, Christ gives us a new name. Eve gets a new one too, this time not from Adam but from her maker.
(Thanks to Fr. Thomas McKenzie for mentioning the naming of Eve after the curse in a recent lecture. I had not made the connection before. I think this whole line of reasoning could be developed a lot further than I have briefly done here. Why? I am attempting to resolve some of the tension between complementarianism and egalitarianism. I affirm the natural just tuning of the hierarchy while also pushing back and saying it is not an eternal institution but a temporary and fundamentally broken one. To redeem all creation is to gradually see the distinctions blur as both the man and woman are image bearers of the same.)
This is pretty off-topic, but I really enjoyed this NTY interview with Robert Bly (whose work I have mixed feelings about). In it though, he quotes a couple of poems from Rumi translated by Coleman Bark. They were so great I felt the need to copy them down. No this is not a Tumblr blog, but sometimes I do this sort of thing anyway just to keep it filed away somewhere.
Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.
It lands left.
I ride after a deer and find myself
Chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want
And end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others
And fall in.
I should be suspicious
Of what I want.
I reach for a piece of wood. It turns into a lute.
I do some meanness. It turns out helpful.
I say one must not travel during the holy month.
Then I start out, and wonderful things happen.
Every night I administer eye drops containing betaxolol hydrochloride, brinzolamide, and the prostaglandin analogue latanoprost to my daughter. What do these marvels of modern medical chemistry accomplish? Almost nothing. That’s right – almost nothing.
Some drugs are simply chemicals that already occur in your body – you just change certain balances by administering them and naturally (more or less) push things in a desired direction. Other drugs cause profound reactions in specific cells. A well-timed antibiotic has saved many a man from near certain death. Pain killers make surgery possible in nearly all cases and daily life possible for many.
But other drugs are just grasping at straws to accomplish anything at all. I was reading a detailed report on how one of the drugs I mentioned above works and discovered that 80% of the drug is recoverable in urine within 17 minutes. 17 minutes!? Do you know what that means? It means as soon as you put the stuff in your body, it says, “What the hell is this? Flush that straight down the toilet!” The affect of the drug is literally felt for just a few minutes. You could administer it more often, but that is challenging, has many ill side-effects and only increases overall effectiveness a tiny amount. And speaking of side-effects, some of them are downright odd. One of them will cause your eye lashes to grow extra long. Another will make a funny taste in your mouth. A third can weaken your breathing – all with a single drop in your eye. So do they do what they are meant to do? Sort of. A little bit, but often nobody knows why. Under the mechanism heading on one prescription, it reads: “Reduces interocular pressure. The precise mechanism of this effect is not known.” Nice.
Now I love learning about this stuff. Some of my best memories are when my father used to read and explain passages from his pharmaceutical reference tome (among other things) to me when I was a young man. My sister is getting her doctorate in the field in a few weeks time. (Congrats!) But the more I interact with these materials first hand, the more I realize that this clever stuff will not save us. Not even close. Our own half-life is not much longer than some of these remedies. The only thing that will save my daughter is love – perfect love. It’s the only thing that will save me too.
God I need your help tonight
Beneath the noise
Below the din
I hear your voice
In science and in medicine
“I was a stranger
You took me in”
The songs are in your eyes
I see them when you smile
I’ve had enough of romantic love
Yeah, I’d give it up, yeah, I’d give it up
For a miracle, miracle drug
-Lyrics from “Miracle Drug”, by U2
Why am I attracted to Anglicanism? A friend asked me this last week and expected some substantial answers. This is just a rough and quick explanation – not a careful apologia.
1. Sacrament central to worship.
The Lord’s supper is the high point of the worship gathering, not some man up on the platform yacking. In contrast, the guy in charge is at the center of non-liturgical worship today. The pulpit is the centerpiece of the architecture rather than the table. If the guy in charge is a great speaker and MC, then things go astonishingly well. If he’s having an off-day, things crash and burn. Not so when the Lord’s table is the high point. Good day or bad, clever leaders or not, it just works. God meets us in the bread and the wine. You can’t really screw this up too terribly. It’s the same every week and Jesus has promised to meet us in this fashion. Now, there is still a guy leading the thing up front, but whether he does well or not has little effect on the most important part of the service. This is a more stable and trouble-resistant form of “the main thing that happens on Sunday morning”.
2. “via media” theology.
The middle way. No a**holes allowed. You HAVE to get along with each other. Over and over on a hundred different topics, the Anglican way is to find a happy inclusive middle way WITHOUT straying from historic orthodoxy. Throwing out everything their great-grandparents held dear is never an option. Neither is ignoring the future. So they have a high view of grace and hold to a Calvinism-lite kind of soteriology, but not so tightly that they have to kick people out over the finer points every five minutes (ala Presbyterianism.) They are liturgical and hold to an ancient form of worship, but are flexible enough to accommodate local languages, customs, new prayers, new music, and even guitars(!) On gender issues, they strike a balance too with women being allowed to serve in most capacities, even as priests in some cases, but usually not as bishops. They, in my opinion, keep many of the best parts of Catholicism intact while stealing the best of the Reformation.
Of course there are always elements within trying to push the ship one way or another: The Anglo-Catholics want to have one foot in Rome, the Episcopalians want to sell the whole farm to the liberals, the Africans skew heavily Charismatic, but the core, the default, is to always be looking for that middle ground while also staying true to scripture. It doesn’t always work, but it works a lot of the time and I like it. Sometimes there is schism, but it’s not the first or even second thing on the table. (Leaders of recently-formed groups who spent the last ten years ridiculing Rowan Williams just cannot fathom this idea.) They have a long history of cool ecumenical optimists like Martin Bucer and of great irenic apologists like Richard Hooker.
3. Global Connection
Despite the name, Anglicanism is not limited to England or the English language. There are about 37 million Anglicans in Africa, far more than in Britain. They are all over the place and allow for local variation. Where many other Christians have a long history of missionaries forcing new converts to change their language and liturgy, Anglicans have often been first on the ground translating the bible and the Book of Common Prayer into the native tongue. Everyone does that now, but some have been doing it for far longer. Colonialism may have had many dark moments, but there were bright points. When the Spanish Catholics conquered Latin America, everyone had to learn Spanish, pronto. When the British set up a colony in Kenya, a Swahili bible was quick on its heels.
I also admit a desire to be connected to a larger tradition with a deeper history. The church I grew up in (Conservative Baptist) was founded in the 1940s and has only about a quarter-million members. The church I was part of in college was independent, though it at once time considered joining the Foursquare Gospel Church. That goes back a little further to the 1920s, though it has 8 million members. The Anglican communion goes back to the 17th century formally, but much farther back in many regards, still claiming apostolic succession. It has 80 million members worldwide. I don’t question the legitimacy or orthodoxy of these smaller Christian groups at all. They are all deeply connected to the past too, though it may not be part of the story they tell about themselves. I just want to acknowledge that connection more. I’m not part of the hot new thing, but I’m part of the best old thing. Jesus is making all things new.
I heard several people in a row the other day talk about how this or that verse or phrase in scripture “jumped out” at them while they were studying. This is a phrase I’ve heard used my entire life, but especially in college by people asked to speak about the daily reading and come up with some sort of personal connection or application. I’ve done this myself many times and I wouldn’t say it’s an inaccurate description even if the analogy is a bit worn. What is going on here? I’ll take a stab at answering that.
How come scripture always “jumps out” at readers? They are synthesizing ideas as they read, drawing threads together, making connections – not just with the words on the page or elements of the larger story, but with personal thoughts and events in their own lives. A psalm, a piece of prophecy, and a gospel passage are immediately connected to the reader’s current time and person.
People can do this reading other fiction and especially non-fiction. Fewer people than ever in America today seem to be avid readers of history, poetry, or theology. We live in a golden age of TV. The public square is broadly, but not typically deeply informed. For many, (and I say this from personal experience and interactions with hundreds of people over the past 15 years or so) the New Testament epistles are the ONLY non-fiction they will likely read or experience outside of school textbooks.
The news is drama now and even most documentaries are now largely reality-infused drama. So when a contemporary entertainment-soaked man reads the epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, he barely knows what to do with it. What the heck is this? An 8-paragraph run-on piece of reasoning! But he finds it fascinating, perhaps for the first time, and gives it a shot. Such a thing is not too hard to grasp, WITH some practice, but it can’t be done cold-turkey. So when the young convert starts to read his bible and puts some effort into processing the words of the apostles, he begins drawing strings of thought together in his mind: Paul’s definition of love in 1st Corinthians, that line about the father’s love in 1st John, that pop song he was listening to earlier, that girl in his chemistry lab that is so attractive, and that sermon he heard last Sunday about losing your life to gain it, that fight he almost had with his coworker yesterday. Suddenly what happens? The text “jumps out” at him.
Why does this sort of thing stand out today? In many cases, only the “people of the book” experience this particular kind of subjective and highly personal intellectual exhilaration. Evangelicism has been moderately anti-intellectual in the past half-century. The joy of scholarship has often been limited to scripture proper. Because the secular academy has at least not been as limiting in the past generation or two, its members are more likely to have had these intellectual epiphanies while studying say, Jung, or Joyce, or maybe David Foster Wallace. They are not impressed by the young convert having them for the first time via a book they don’t take seriously.
We can beat them to the punch though. Christians have a long history of being great thinkers and readers. Do I even need to give a list? Aquinas, Allegri, Pascal, Newton, Lewis – good grief I could go on for an hour. We can be distinguished in this way AND rest in the revelation of Christ’s atonement for us. It’s not either/or. We don’t diminish the power of God’s revelation by supplementing our studying with the works of wise men both living and ancient. Years ago, I was encouraged to read the biography of Smith Wigglesworth, an early 20th century evangelist. He was purported to have never read anything except the Bible, frequently throwing other books and newspapers within his reach into the nearest trash can. This was purportedly a good and commendable thing. I disagree. It’s even worth reading the “bad guys” too just to have a better grasp of what’s going on. Learning a thousand things about the world should not undermine our faith, but rather bolster it. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but it’s just the beginning. He made our minds in such a way that we are always making connections and putting pieces of the creation puzzle together. EVERYTHING can “jump out” at us, not just scripture. Sometimes the Holy Spirit’s work takes this shape. Keep you eyes peeled.
Prodigies are common in mathematics, but extremely rare in literature, and as far as I know, there are no prodigies in monastic life.
-Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, p.142
I believe that what is often called “talent” is not an inherent aptitude for a particular skill or activity (be it playing the cello or painting or public speaking) per se, but rather an inherent desire or drive to concentrate on, think about, or undertake that thing for far longer and with more intensity than the average person. And so in most cases, the violin prodigy doesn’t have anything worth noting about their fingers or even their IQ. What makes them unique is that they are more or less happy to practice the thing six hours a day without going crazy. Their peers live in the same environment and have similar parents. They are the same stature and eat the same food and talk about the same movies. But when they go to play violin, they get bored or tired after one hour and go on to something else.
So in what areas are prodigies the most common? The activities where one is likely to get “lost” in and lose track of time in a sub-world of immediate feedback. Music is one of those. You can enthusiastically tackle the piano for – literally – all day long and be enthralled with making the sounds more precise. Prodigy trumpet players are virtually unheard of – the dang thing is just too physically demanding to play for more than a couple hours a day. The really top players tend to emerge in their mid-twenties, not in their early teens like string players or pianists.
Mathematics seems to be another field that thinkers can just get lost in. Computer science is another. In addition to that, the greatest challenges can be tackled with relatively little equipment – pen, paper, and maybe an old VIC-20. In contrast, chemists emerge far later in life. Doing much of anything in that field requires an incredible amount of gear – much of it untouchable by children.
Literature is another tricky one. It’s not unusual for a young person to devour books, but to turn around and write them? It’s slow going and there can be incredibly long stretches between feedback. A person who falls in love with the piano can sit down and get immediate response. A budding writer can work on something for hours and hours and have only frustration to show for it and a bad first draft. Time to go back to the drawing board and read more books so you can find the right words to use. If anything, I think the best writers were probably the best readers in childhood. That is the prep. The output comes later after a long stretch with seemingly none.
As Norris points out, the monastic life is even more extreme in this regard. Nobody starts out being a good monk. It takes a serious amount of time and forming and most of childhood doesn’t count.
Mary DeMuth wrote a piece titled “I’m Sick of Hearing About Your Smoking Hot Wife” over at the Christianity Today blog “her.meneutics” last week. There is a good positive follow-up post by Zach Hoag here. I am in agreement with a lot of what is being said in these posts. I just wanted to add a few things.
The first is to mention this note from Kathleen Norris. It’s from a larger essay on celibacy.
Any marriage has times of separation, ill-health, or just plain crankiness, in which sexual intercourse is ill-advised. And it is precisely the skills of celibate friendship – fostering intimacy through letters, conversation, performing mundane tasks together (thus rendering them pleasurable), savoring the holy simplicity of a shared meal, or a walk together at dusk – that can help a marriage survive the rough spots. When you can’t make love physically, figure out other ways to do it.
-The Cloister Walk, p.118
The point is that marriage is a many-dimensional thing. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons (circumstantial, psychological, physical) sex just isn’t possible or is ill-advised. What is there to fall back on? Hopefully a hundred different things! The secular culture drastically over-emphasizes sex. So what? But Christians fall in to a trap when they try to do the same thing. Christian books on marriage where literally half the text or more is about sex miss the mark. It would be ridiculous for a book on marriage to NOT have a chapter on sex. But it would be equally ridiculous for it to be about nothing but. We’re not helping anyone by playing along with the over-emphasis as if we can redeem it all by enough rhetoric or bombast in the other direction.
I would also like to take a page out of Wendell Berry’s work and mention the matter of time and age. Even if your wife is “smokin’ hot” by all accounts now, she won’t stay that way long. It is nonsense to talk about your 70-year-old wife that way. At that point, her beauty is apparent in other ways. Those ways are present now too. It is unhealthy and unsustainable to emphasize something fleeting and transient. Praise it, but balance it with the whole. We make a culture with no place for our elderly when everything we lavish praise upon is tied to youth – be it beautiful skin and figure, the strength of young men, or the great accomplishments of middle-age men “hitting their stride”. All good things to be sure, but not the whole picture. We need a place for snotty-nosed kids to be celebrated along with frumpy old women and bent-over men that can’t shovel the walk anymore. Where those people are sidelined, we will look EXACTLY like the rest of the world and not as some ekklesia of called-out ones.
I was taught as a child to read my Bible, but I wasn’t exactly modeled how to do that. I heard thousands of hours of preaching from scripture, but the reading and preparation going on behind the scenes was invisible to me. I remember when I was 8 or 9 years old, my mother had a list of things we could do over the summer to earn money. I think one Saturday I washed all the windows in the house. Another day, the assignment was to read the gospel of Mark. So how did I end up reading it all?
Early on I was given a hefty NIV study bible which had extensive notes. I would say it was at least 40% notes. I read every last one as I went along. I did the same with the well-done “Spirit Filled” NKJV study bible I used throughout college. I’ve read them cover-to-cover each at least once, and some sections like the gospel of John I’ve probably read at least 20 times. I enjoyed both of them and still pull out both of them frequently. Despite all the years of Sunday school and years of catechism, I think that reading through every single one of those footnote commentaries is what really gave me a broad understanding of scripture. Even now reading them is comfortable, even when they lead in theological directions I now have a different or more nuanced opinion on.
The topical preaching I heard so much of was hit and miss and it was only later in life that I really understood how scandalous the gospel was. But I have to say that I owe a tremendous amount to those heavily annotated tomes I still have on my shelf now. My mother bought the first one for me, my Grandmother the second one. Perhaps that is one reason I still love paper books. eBook readers don’t lend themselves well to parallel commentaries. What’s funny is that I’ve occasionally been exhorted by preachers to “not stop and read the footnotes”, as if might break a spell. Ha! Good luck. I can’t help read them all, at least a page at a time.
Here, Kathleen Norris describes another way to read scripture, one I am only now beginning to familiarize myself with:
The Benedictine method of reading psalms, with long silences between them rather than commentary or explanation, takes full advantage of these paradoxes, offering almost alarming room for interpretation and response.
For all their discipline, the Benedictines allowed me to relax and sing again in church; they allowed me, as one older sister described it, to “let the words of the psalms wash over me, and experience the joy of just being with words.” As a poet I like to be with words. It was a revelation to me that this could be prayer; that this could be enough.
-The Cloister Walk, p.93
I think I could read it all over again – this time with no commentary at all, just silence. Let the silence serve as the richest of footnotes.
How do we learn to read scripture? I don’t recall really being taught. I was exhorted too all the time, but who showed me how? I think I got lucky but I would not want people to have to fend for themselves so much. Better to learn when 8 than when 20. I’m not sure what to do with my own children at this point. This needs some more thought.
When Christian missionaries were kicked out of Ethiopia by communists in the mid-1970s, they left behind a fledgling church in the poor south of the country. When they returned twenty years later, they were shocked to discover it had multiplied tenfold. Now, what is going on? Hasn’t Ethiopia been famously a Christian country since the fourth century? Well, only sort of. The ancient kingdom of Axum in the north converted to Christianity very early on, but the south Oromo regions were a completely different race and culture. Even when they were later brought into the empire and saw themselves as Ethiopians, Orthodox missionaries made only nominal inroads into the various villages. The poor rural people didn’t want to have anything to do with the religion of the elite, rich, and oppressive northerners. It was, unfortunately, a great stumbling block.
When protestant missionaries finally showed up in the late 1800s though, they were seen, as they are nearly everywhere, as outsiders. BUT, apparently being an outsider wasn’t as bad as being an oppressive elite. The reformation gospel began to take hold.
Fast-forward. When the communists initially took power, they tried to supress the national Orthodox church. But after a few years of that, they decided it was more useful to co-opt the church and manipulate it, using the strong cultural ties to the people as a way to defend against western democracies that sought to undermine the regime. During this time, protestant churches in the country (let entirely by natives) came under heavy attack. The pejorative name given to all of these Christian groups was “Pente”, short for Pentecostal, but used to describe all the different denominations, whether they were actually Pentecostals or not. To this day, this word and it’s negative associations have stuck, even though the communists were kicked out over 20 years ago. Their undermining of the word in this case had a lasting effect.
Poluha describes the situation in this passage:
In class I saw no aggressiveness and no derogatory remarks or religious insults were passed between Christains and Muslims. Both talked, however, of Pente in very negative terms. Poluha explains some of the situation here.
The children were unaware of [how the term 'Pente' was promoted by the communinists to demonize westerners] and did not make any distinction betwen various Protestant religions or between Protestantism and Catholicism. What was intersting was that even the Muslim children experienced the advanced of the ‘Pente’ as something negative. Both Orthodox and Muslim children saw their own religions as an integral part of Ethiopia and its history while ‘Pente’, which came from the USA was an alien religion and posed a threat to the children’s own Ethiopianness.
In their negative opinions of Pente both Coptic and Muslim children were thus remarkably united. This could make life difficult for any child adhering to a Protestant religion, as revealed to me by 11 year old Alemu, one of the boys in class. In an interview Alemu had told me about the religious situation in his home. Originally his father had been Orthodox Christian and his mother Muslim. Then both had become ‘Pente’. But in connection with the death of the mother’s mother, the mother had been conviced by relatives and a Muslim priest to return to Isla. This had happened some years previously. The father and the children tried to persuade her to come back to her Protestant religion but up to now she had refused. Alemu was categorized as Muslim by his classmates and his two closest friends were two young Muslim oys. One day, after I had started with my group interviews, Alemu found me alone in the compound and asked that I should not reveal to anyone in class what he had told me, namely that he was ‘Pente’. Since all his classmates though he was Muslim, he preferred it that way, he said. I promised him to keep silent.
-Eva Poluha, The Power of Continuity: Ethiopia through the eyes of its children, p.164
A brief side note: Notice how in the boy’s story, the persuasion of family members plays a much more explicit and prominent part in the mother’s religious affiliation. This sounds alien to us in the US where highly personal and individual thinking is considered to be the only thing that really matters. “Who cares what your parents think? Screw them.” But this is actually a very modern idea. I think we in the west say that if the mother is considering going back to Islam, than she can’t possibly have had a significant relationship or experience with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. That may indeed be the case, but let me tell you, it is not as simple as that. Life is hard and when your family strongly believes something else, the stress they can put on you can cause you to doubt what you believed before. It can confuse you and to ease the stress, you may go against what you know in your heart to be true – to make life easier in some other sense. We see this in the substantial accounts of crypto-Christian communities inside of Muslim regions today.
But back to what I was talking about before:
One potentially positive side-effect of all this is that it has given the long-standing Orthodox church in Ethiopia a close brother to be a rival with. Bear with me as I invoke Rene Girard’s insights. While the people on the fringes of society remained animist or moderately Muslim, the nations cultural Christianity became sleepy. But as many of the lower class began to accept Jesus as their king, though not the same church structure, the existing Christians felt an increased need to distinguish themselves from their neighbors. The growing influence of Protestant churches has spurred the Orthodox to get its act together in some cases. The result of the backlash has often been to bolster their own religious fervor, rather than start wars.
A major change in the Orthodox Church that I have been able to observe over the past 20 to 30 years has been a steady increase in the attempts of the Church to teach people about the Orthodox ideology and to involve the adherents more in the Church’s various activities. As a result of these internal missionary activities, probably combined with the political upheavals and insecurity in the country for the last three decades, many Orthodox Christians have become more conscious of their religion and more intellectually and emotionally involved in its future.
She goes on to describe how in the last 20 years fasting has become far more widespread and is now often observed by the many people – not just priests. Missionary fervor and discipleship was dramatically increased by the encroaching western Christianity. But both sides, despite their differences, have a high enough respect for each other and enough other unifying elements of culture that they ultimately try to get along and don’t kill each other. This is in contrast to the sectarian violence seen in Northern Ireland in the past century, or unofficially in Iraq today.
The people doing the most damage in the country today are the secularists – their pockets loaded with money from the Chinese and Saudis. These people may be nominally Orthodox still, but the promise of stacks of cash has eroded their deeper sense of brotherhood.