Archive for June, 2011

Listening to the spiels of several candidates for the top IT manager in my organization gave me time to scribble down some thoughts on the matter.

I found things I liked about each candidate but also some ideas I disagreed with.

Customer focus is absolutely necessary to maintain energy inside a service group. Introspection and nerdy-focus will implode it. Focusing on the technology makes life mechanized, meaningless, and dehumanized. Server uptime as a metric apart from the context of real people doing real creative work is meaningless. Not just meaningless, but destructive when you imagine it to exist in a vacuum.

Fun alliterative phrases heard:

“critical core competencies”

“support of service assements”

From what I can gather, the “Educause” conference must be a real snore.

Someone said, “Leadership is not just the responsibility of the president…”. Well, yes, in many ways it’s up to him least of all because he is too distant to affect real change. People close to you, people you love, these people can lead. Other, distant people can be safely imitated (for better or worse), but that is only an imagined leadership. Real people, close to you, on the ground need to lead.

Someone else said, “I believe in the value of advanced degrees, after all, it’s the business we are in.” After being in this business for 11 years, I can now say that I actually do not believe in the value of advanced degrees, in general. Often, not all the time, but very often, we are in the “business” of convincing young people to max out their credit cards for a gallon of snake-oil. And it’s not that we are shysters – we want so badly to believe in the value of education and degrees, just like the students do. They are pinning all their hopes and dreams on them and we don’t want them to fail. But the higher-ed bubble of the last 30 years has taken, is taking, it’s toll on many lives right now. With my own children, when they are older, depending on their interest, I will likely advocate some sort of apprenticeship instead. It’s not institutionalized, but has the potential to be far more valuable.

Imagining myself in in the position of these candidates presents a challenging thought experiment. It’s a complicated job with a lot of moving targets. The best way forward does not seem obvious to me at this point, though I have a pretty good idea what I would try to focus on and what I would not.

I’m reading Frederick Brook’s The Mythical Man Month right now. Very good stuff in here, and the clear thinking and writing is dry but exemplary.

A rather personal musing:

When I actually pick up my pen, when I actually get off my butt, so often, amazing things happen – I produce good work. The kids learn, my wife is blessed, my thoughts take shape on a page. The consistency is really pretty staggering. I do not constantly fall on my face. So why, why, why the hell do I refrain from DOING so often? It seems to me like despair. Despair when an effort, especially a great amount of effort, fails to affect. It doesn’t take very much despair to poison me. To neutralize me.

It also seems the most potent accelerate to this poison is envy. When I have been most crushed with despair, when I have been filled with the most hatred toward my neighbor, it has been when I have seen my peers succeed – when they seize the day and I do not. I hate them, as I hate myself. By God’s grace my hate for them wains and passes, but my own hatred of myself persists.

Kierkegaard said the following in The Sickness Unto Death:

“The most common form of despair is not being who you are.”

“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”

These ring true. Being jealous of the future of your peer is a terrible psychological state to be in. It is also an explicit failure to be yourself. Instead of standing by and observing how this is just a natural part of the “human condition” (and it is that too), I shall, with S.K. name this despair for what it is: sin. Failure to be what you were created to be. But this is not an exhortation to myself to “get off my butt and git’r’done!”. That kind of law binds the will and leads only to more despair. What heals this alone is the utterly unwarranted love of Christ.

Well I’ve established (ha! or at least suggested) that a lot of books, especially contemporary religious books, are chock full of cultural critique, but are largely devoid of solutions.

Back to why. Why/how do these books even get written? Why only describe the problem more thoroughly? An academic researcher can probably get away with this, but a lot of these books, most of them in fact, or clearly intended for a popular audience. I am going to try and describe what I think is happening, at least some of the time here.

Most theology and Christian culture writers are minor celebrity pastors. They feel like personally, due to their ordained day job, are sufficiently “doing their part” and serving “more than enough” to be above reproach in their vocation. (Do you need to preach a sermon to Mother Teresa exhorting her to serve more? Nah, she’s got that covered at least.) So from this position of critical safety, they can opine about (quite literally) anything and everything. They can diagnose all day long and not BOTHER to articulate a substantial cure since they, personally, are already maximally involved as part of some sort of cure already (as far as they can tell).

In a vacuum where a well-reasoned cure does not exist or a proposed solution is only vaguely defined, what takes the place? It is filled by the person speaking himself. Whether they (the speaker) are actively seeking to promote themselves is irrelevant. What happens is that the “cure” becomes the replication of the speaker. And the listeners, intellectually agreeing and emotionally resonating with the diagnosis, desire the cure, desire to take part in the cure. And so they find themselves desiring to become like the speaker. People who sit under effective pastors find their legitimate list of vocations to include only being a pastor or something very similar. This is a natural reaction. It happens in the absence of a substantial solution. Not prescribing a concrete cure does not mean that none is communicated. The vacuum will be filled by SOMETHING, probably the speaker’s own person. When we are long on diagnosis and short of cure, then the cure becomes highly personal and imitative.

So what is Wendel Berry’s solution? As far as I can tell it’s “Everyone become a small farmer and learn to be happy being poor, just like me.”

After writing this, I checked to see if there were any discussions regarding Berry on the BHT. It didn’t take long to find exactly what I was looking for.

OK, I guess I have to say something. I’ve been sitting this one out because my best friend is totally into Wendell Berry. I’m a little into Wendell Berry. I think eating local and thinking about community is cool. But my friend is so into it that it drives him to despair. He feels trapped, doomed to participate in an economy he hates and the burden of rage against the machine wears him out. I try to encourage him with eschatology, but it usually doesn’t take.

Why so much stridency on this subject? It seems so out of proportion. …from the little I’ve read of Berry he doesn’t seem as full of anger as his disciples. Anybody want to do a little armchair psychoanalysis of what’s going on here?

And a reply:

…I hate being stuck in an evil system, being part of an economy that promotes poverty, and that I can’t do a damn thing to get out of it. I would LOVE to have my own farm, big enough to sustain my family (in produce and in trade) and some of my close friends. I can’t afford it. I can’t afford to buy all organic, all cruelty free, or all local… and I love in Portland OR, mecca for the ultra green hipsters! I can barley afford to feed my family! If I think about this stuff too much, it will send me to depression… and I can’t afford to go there in any way, shape, or form. Thinking about the kingdom of our God and his Messiah swallowing up this evil, corrupt way we live (all over the world, I’m not talking just USA) is the only thing that gives me any hope.

I really hate to be picking on Wendell Berry (sorry Seth T.!) because he really is a sharp guy, but his work provides such a good example of what I’m talking about here. Berry offers a brilliant critique, but then articulates no cure. So what do his followers pick up as the cure? Be like Berry. So they get themselves a few chickens in their back yard (as much as the city will allow them), stop shopping at Walmart, eat out less and maybe try to get to know their neighbors. But they are frustrated because it seems like so very little in an ocean of waste and consumerism.

When I hear reformed fan boys invoke John Piper’s NAME far more often than his actual ideas, I wonder what is going on. I think that in spiritual matters, even something as systematic as Calvinism can fail to SEEM like a substantial solution to life’s immediate problems. That still involves (and will always involve) the long daily trek of faith.

Here is a counter example involving a local pastor, Doug Wilson, who has written on a lot of different (and sometimes very controversial) topics over the years.

The advocacy for Classical Christian Education is a very substantial, meaty solution to many of the problems presented by modern schooling. That is why the focus of the movement has been on the methodology and (to some degree) the philosophy rather than a particular person. In truth, this advocacy has probably been by far Wilson’s most influential contribution, but because it has been so long on cure, he, the person, is effectively diminished. He isn’t this larger-than-life leader of the movement. In fact, lots of people involved who may even now be teaching Sayer’s revised Trivium in schools across the country don’t even know who he is. That’s good. It keeps everyone’s eye’s on the ball. It also prevents Doug from personally becoming a stumbling block (and he would).

On the flip side again, we can also REJECT the given cure and try to imitate the person instead. Great musicians usually have one piece of advice to their wannabe fans: practice, practice, practice. But instead, we buy the Eric Clapton signature edition guitar, start smoking cigarettes, and even go shopping for the right kind of hat. That’s the stuff we can imitate and it’s easy. We don’t see him practicing four hours straight every morning. We just saw the four-minute clip on MTV.

Girard shows us that, for better or worse, we are always imitating others and imitating their desires too. For ideas to stand on their own, they need to be sufficiently separated or distant from the person presenting them. For discipleship (which is a form of intentional imitation) to be effective, the master and apprentice need to have a common goal strong enough to prevent rivalry with each other. The master musician and his student need to pursue music, not the teacher personally. The pastor and the lay minister need to pursue God, not the reproduction of the pastor. We need to be careful when being long on diagnosis and short on cure. We may think we are doing the world a favor, but maybe not so much. We can guard against this by being humble and minimizing ourselves personally from the solution. Reformed blogger Carl Trueman recently exhorted celebrity pastors to voluntarily NOT go speak at so many big conferences. It’s too bad the reception to his idea has been lukewarm.

“He must increase, I must decrease” said John the Baptist. He’s still right.

So what do you do about it? Everyone and their dog can point out the world’s problems, but what sort of curative action do they take?

It seems like there are several routes folks nearly always follow, and these go for ANYONE trying to change the world. They can be divided up by how far-reaching their influence is. Keep in mind here that I am generally talking about religious and cultural change.

  • National/State level – Political activism. Get out the vote. Campaign support. Write your congressman.
  • Local/Regional level – Congregational and parish ministries and services. Build up church programs.
  • Family level – Focus on raising and educating your (many) children, keeping your marriage and family together.
  • Highly personal level – Quietism. Join a monastic order or the peace corps. Traveling evangelist types.
  • Forget it – Who cares? Just consume as much as you can get your hands on.

Now days the most popular way to change the world is to “raise awareness!”. This, as many have pointed out if it wasn’t already painfully obvious, is often a pile of crap. It’s form over substance. Then I had to stop myself and ask, is writing a book “form over substance” as well? You can raise awareness in a very shrill way, or you can do it in a calm, wise, reasoned way, even engaging other ideas head-on in the academic and public realm. Hopefully, writing a GOOD book on the subject really can spur others. I hope so. Putting on another bumper sticker won’t do much except make you feel better about yourself for a minute. Much more useful would be to lead by example yourself.

Looking back to this list of ways to change the world, at the national level we have organizations like the Moral Majority or Dobson trying to push state and federal politics in a certain direction. Pros: The potential to effect sweeping changes backed up by law enforcement. Cons: Waking up one morning to find yourself in bed with big-money politicians, most of whom don’t actually fear God at all. Oops.

At the local level, we have church and para-church ministries. Soup kitchens, crisis pregnancy centers, youth programs, foreign schools and orphanages, Christian schools, Alcoholics Anonymous and the like, money-management classes, etc. Pros: A much more direct effect on people you actually know and your own community. Cons: Has been proven to frequently make the church organization, especially if it is a mega church with a lot of resources, the central focus of our time and energy. This, it turns out, brings with it a host of problems that I’m not going to go into here.

I can personally think of a LOT of individuals (myself included) who have largely abandoned politics and even ministry organizations and are instead pouring our time, energy, and creativity into our family. This usually means first HAVING lots of kids, then raising them well, often homeschooling them, abandoning careers and potential career advancement to spend time teaching and playing with them. Abandoning some hobbies in favor of theirs. Family worship. Don’t neglect your marriage. Don’t volunteer too much at church – that might mean zero volunteer work, depending on the context. Muslims have been accused of taking over Europe with this technique. Maybe. The same could be said for Christian conservatives in America. Someone might be saying it more in 50 years. Pros: Stability of the core God-husband-wife-family unit, upon which a great Cathedral of other things (see above) can be built. Cons: Like anything, it can backfire real bad if done in a foolish manner. Outsiders are NOT qualified to make these judgments. I could go on and on about this one.

There is always something going on at the highly personal level. This is your spiritual life, your internal life, the part nobody sees. It is your thoughts, your prayers. The fruit of the spirit. Anyone following God is going to be “working” on this stuff to some degree all the time. Advocates of personal piety have often pushed this as the only way to make anything happen at all. The world gets holier one person at a time. It comes back to the great dilemma of sociologist: Is a community a living organism of it’s own? Or is it just a collection of individuals? Whole books are still being written about this. Whether you think Constantine was the worst thing to ever happen to Christianity (or not) will provide some guidance as to where you stand on this.

The final one on the list is simply to do nothing. Make as much money as you can. Advance your career as much as you can. Buy as many cool cars and iPads and vacations as you can swing without getting into trouble with your boss or the bank. If you like your wife, than treat her just nice enough that she won’t leave you. If you later decide you don’t like her anymore, then ditch her. Have a couple of kids if you think that will make you happier. Don’t be a jerk because it’s nice to have some friends. Go to church sometimes if if will help you feel better. There are some meds for that too. Just do your thing. Sure, the world has problems, but they aren’t your problems.

What is really going on is that every “cure” involves two or more of these strategies, though there is usually one sector where most of the attention is focused.

In part three, I’ll talk about what sometimes fills the void in the event of a short or insufficient cure.

I’ve been reading more Wendel Berry. His insights into how the rise of industrialism and “agribusiness” in America has served to undermine families, communities, father-son relations, churches, etc. are pretty well reasoned. I’m not on board with everything he’s saying, but there is a hefty amount of good stuff in there. And yet… what do you do about it all? It all seems so hopeless. One reviewer of “The Unsettling of America” on Amazon said that the book is “long on diagnosis, short on cure”. I couldn’t agree more. I also think that phrase pretty much sums up MANY books, especially books pertaining to religion and culture.

(Fill in the blank) is going to hell in a handbasket and here’s why. What follows is often a more or less accurate detailing of some of the reasons behind the decline in (marriage, literacy, tithing, savings, employment, churches, dental hygiene) or the appalling rise of (consumerism, debt, porn, deadbeat dads, the prosperity gospel, motorcycle accidents). If the author is a good writer, the ride can be witty and include interesting anecdotes and case studies. If the writer is a sufficiently deep thinker, perhaps they articulate some of the underlying philosophical or psychological things going on. If the writer is NOT so good, you’ll see the word “unfortunately” a lot usually followed by a paragraph of statistics.

Near the end of the book, often just in the last one or two chapters, they will try to shift gears and offer some kind of solution. It’s often a half-hearted attempt – just a desire I think to end on some kind of a positive note. They’ve spent the last two hundred pages explaining how difficult the problem is, now what the heck are they going to come up with that is going to fix it? Something concise that will really blow your mind? Probably not.

The result is a wholly depressing and unsatisfying read – like watching the news only with a lot more effort involved. Sure, the research may be sound, their conclusions agreeable, and the importance of the cultural phenomenon being discussed relevant and even quite serious. So what do you freakin’ do about it? And if you can’t come up with any kind of solution, why did you write a whole book on it in the first place? Long on diagnosis, short on cure.

I wrote this down in my notebook in a rather stream-of-consciousness fashion. I’m trying to break it up here into three parts. In part two I’ll take a closer look at the forms cures actually take and in part three I’ll put forth a Girardian theory as to what happens naturally when the cure is short, at least in some cases.

Organizational overhead. It provides control or at least an illusion of control within a nation, a business, a marriage. It brings peers together since everyone can complain about the government. It’s easy to find camaraderie in complaining about the boss behind his back. The degree to which the government or the boss is actually responsible for the hardship is irrelevant. It’s unifying and completely “safe” to blame big brother.

Within a marriage though, any sort of control mechanism immediately becomes a personal at-odds with the spouse. There are only two people in the group. There is not an abstract beuracracy or semi-abstract “The Man” to rail against. There is only the beloved.

How many kids should we have? What should we spend this extra money on? Where should we go out to eat? Where should we go to church? How much is too much to drink? Can you take a few days off work to visit my mother? Can I play pool with the guys tonight?

The “rules” and agreements of the couple aren’t set in stone. They are all only 50% of the vote away from changing or being repealed.

This, I think, reveals a way that marriage is challenging. It would be unifying if together we had some sort of overhead structure to channel our frustrations at. But we only have each other. To avert our own destruction, we must be more selfless.

Technology and determinism.

I’ve been reading some Jaque Ellul and also just cracked open Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America last night. I’ve only gotten a little ways into each, but I was struck at how both of them see the introduction of technology as absolutely, unavoidably, leading from one thing to the next. It can’t be stopped. He quotes at length from historian Bernard DeVoto and mixes in his own comments here:

“The first belt-knife given by a European roan Indian was a portent as great as the cloud that mushroomed over Hiroshima. . . . Instantly the man of 6000 B.C. was bound fast to a way of life that had developed seven and a half millennia beyond his own. He began to live better and he began to die.

The principal European trade goods were tools, cloth, weapons, ornaments, novelties, and alcohol. The sudden availability of these things produced a revolution that “affected every aspect of Indian life. The struggle for existence. . . became easier. Immemorial handicrafts grew obsolescent, then obsolete. Methods of hunting were transformed. So were methods and the purposes of war. As war became deadlier in purpose and armament a surplus of women developed, so that marriage customs changed and polygamy became common. The increased usefulness of women in the preparation of pelts worked to the same end. . . . Standards of wealth, prestige, and honor changed. The Indians acquired commercial values and developed business cults. They became more mobile. . . .

“In the sum it was cataclysmic. A culture was forced to change much faster than change could be adjusted to. All corruptions of culture produce breakdowns of morale, of communal integrity, and of personality, and this force was as strong as any other in the white man’s subjugation of the red man.”

He goes on to state part of his major thesis here:

I have quoted these sentences from Delfoto because, the obvious differences aside, he is so clearly describing a revolution that did not stop with the subjugation of the Indians, but went on to impose substantially the same catastrophe upon the small farms and the farm communities, upon the shops of small local tradesmen of all sorts, upon the workshops of independent craftsmen, and upon the households of citizens. It is a revolution that is still going on. The economy is still substantially that of the fur trade, still based on the same general kinds of commercial items: technology, weapons, ornaments, novelties, and drugs. The one great difference is that by now the revolution has deprived the mass of consumers of any independent access to the staples of life: clothing, shelter, food, even water. Air remains the only necessity that the average user can still get for himself, and the revolution has imposed a heavy tax on that by way of pollution. Commercial conquest is far more thorough and final than military defeat. The Indian became a redskin, not by loss in battle, but by accepting a dependence on traders that made necessities of industrial goods. This is not merely history. It is a parable.

Now Berry is (was) a farmer and a pastor and so he has a bone to pick with “commerce as religion”. Ellul was a French academic and philosopher and so he deals with a much more abstract idea of “technology” that is not necessarily evil. Nevertheless, in reading both of them I feel they are often talking about essentially the same thing.

I think the great challenge both of them present is “How are Christians, and the Christian Church going to redeem this sort of damage at the ground level when we are absolutely saturated in this technology and mammon culture ourselves?”

In Genesis 10, immediately before the Tower of Babel narrative, the people’s of the earth are listed. The immediate decentans of Shem, Ham, and Japheth number 70 new families that will become 70 nations of sorts.

As the Jesus Storybook Bible puts it, when introducing Abraham: “God’s world was still full of tears. It was never meant to be like this. But God was getting ready to do something about it. He was going to make all the wrong things right, and he was going to do it though… a family.”

So the people of Israel are God’s special and exclusive people but finally with Jesus salvation is brought to the gentiles. No. The salvation of the gentiles is all over the Old Testament!

In Leviticus 23:33-44, the Lord describes the rituals that are to take place during the Feast of Booths, which is also called the Feast of Tabernacles or the end of harvest feast. A different number of bulls are sacrificed each day during the 7 days of the festival. They total 70. Why? They 70 sacrifices are for the gentile nations. Israel is mediating for them as priests before God. Even way back then, His family was instructed to stand between the unknowning rebelious pagan people and their creator. He never forgot them for a moment and even as he turned his back on them, he kept them in his thoughts as he grew up his plan to redeem them in history.

(HT to Bible Matrix, Michael Bull, p.117 for this idea.)

I’ve been reading Bible Matrix, by Michael Bull. A better name for this book would be “An Introduction to Biblical Chiasms”. Honestly, I had never heard of them until about a year ago. None of the Bible teaching traditions I grew up with ever mentioned the idea once. As even the Wikipedia article on it is pretty weak, it appears to not be very widespread among Christian scholars. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s a relatively “new” idea (it’s not new really) that has been largely ignored by scholars over the centuries, or one that has only recently been developed and fleshed out more fully, or one that all the scholars are aware of but have actively rejected. I highly doubt the third option as chiasm analysis seems to be a pretty obvious help in some cases and doesn’t tend to lead to anything particularly heterodox.

I really don’t have the patience right this moment to write an explanation the system itself. I suggest checking here, here, and here for some examples.

It functions as a particular theory of biblical interpretation, recognizing that the Bible authors used certain literary conventions over and over again. Keeping this in mind, it gives us insight into what the author thought was the most important part of a particular passage and where he was going with it. It can also be used to explain a bunch of the typology in the temple and festivals. It’s very useful in the Old Testament, but doesn’t see much action in the New.

I must admit I’m not exactly sold on it. When it works, it seems to work very well. Scholars who are really interested in chiasms are definitely on to something. While describing chiasms to my wife though, she remarked “But couldn’t you find something like anywhere you looked?” She’s right. Even some of the examples given in this book seem like a stretch.

Still, I really like where Bull, the author and Leithart, who wrote the forward for the book and who often blogs about chiasms, is going with much of this. It makes a lot of sense and seems to be a more legitimate and consistent lens for understanding the Old Testament typology and flow.

Is there a motivation behind this? I think that it is ultimately used to prop up postmillenialism. You can use the recurring chiasm structure in SO many bible narratives, especially the creation ones to make a hefty case that God’s plan for man always looks like:

Creation
Division
Ascension
Testing
Maturity
Conquest
Glorifiction

Eschatologies like premillenialism (including the rapture) don’t fit this pattern at all. They tend to stop at “Testing” for a long, long time, with a sudden Glorification tacked on at the end. Postmillenialism claims that the church is maturing right now. As bad as things may be in the world, beneath it all, the bride is maturing. It could be a couple more thousand years until Jesus comes back. Not that their aren’t lots of problems with this view, but it IS a closer fit to the larger themes of scripture.

 

Thousands of cups of coffee or a bottle of wine each weekend.

Thousands of drinks from now, will you be a different person? Will any of of those sips slowly change your mind about anything? We know they’ll change your liver or your blood-sugar, but will it change anything else? More likely the one person you drank with that one time will have far more influence than that.

You are what you eat. Girard would say, you are who you imitate. Jesus told us who he imitated and his apostles told us to imitate him.

But Jesus also gave us something to eat, bread and wine, even himself.