Producing an Oromo braille bible, Part 4

A few weeks ago, my friend Tafesse made it back to Ethiopia with the first draft copy of Oromo Gospel of John in his suitcase. He was just able to send me this picture of some folks in their Christian fellowship meeting reading it for the first time. They sent me some feedback on how the formatting could be improved some, but overall they were very happy with it. I’m excited that it has been a success so far.

My next step will be to reformat it for larger paper that will be embossed on both sides. I’ll also be including additional navigation marks on the bottom right of each right-handed page. With luck, it may fit in one fat volume. Lutheran Braille Workers is rather swamped, but they’ve offered to help me try printing a small batch later this year, assuming I can get the files in exactly the right format.

A Girardian Eucatastrophe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This spring I’ve been playing Theseus in a local community theatre production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that my wife is helping direct. I’ve been involved in shows before but it’s always been from the orchestra pit and this is my first time acting or trying to memorize lines. It’s also only about my third brush with Shakespeare in general so there has been a lot to learn and discover. Along the way, I’ve been reading Rene Girard’s literary analysis of the play that is found in his book A Theater of Envy.

Girard devotes no fewer than six chapters to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, making it a favorite topic. I’m still a fan of Girard even though he suffers from a severe case of “when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail” syndrome with regards to his theory of mimetic desire. The bulk of his explanation sees the fairies in the play as a mythical projection of the escalating rivalries between the two sets of lovers – a hallucination to mask and offer a softer explanation of reality.

I was really surprised to discover though that nowhere does he address Theseus’s line when discovering the reconciled lovers asleep in the forest in Act 4:1. When I began rehearsing the play, this passage struck me as the most obviously “Girardian” of the entire work. Upon discovering the men Demetrius and Lysander sleeping peacefully next to each other with their lovers, the Duke of Athens remarks:

I know you two are rival enemies.
How comes this gentle concord in the world,
that hatred is so far from jealousy,
to sleep by hate and fear no enmity?

The climax of the play really begins when the fairy Puck sorts out the misapplied love potions in the scene right before this one, and it become fully real a moment later when the duke announces the wedding of the two couples. But here is when explicit light is shed on what just happened.

And what DID just happen? Two people hated each other. They fought over the same women, then forgot the woman and just sought to kill each other. The women, in parallel, dropped their friendship and became jealous and deeply angry at each other. But then POOF! – it’s all fixed. Later, allusions to how it could have gone abound. The offered entertainment for the wedding night includes “The Battle of the Centaurs” and “The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals, tearing the Thracian singer in their rage” which both end it violent resolutions. Instead, Puck has led the warring rivals astray and cast them into deep sleep. There, sleeping without fear, their jealousy and hatred dissolves.

I think this can quite accurately be called a eucatastrophe, a term coined by Tolkien to describe some sudden cataclysmic good happening. The thing to notice here is that eucatastrophe doesn’t come from within ourselves. We’re a hopeless lot of jealous haters and dysfunctional lovers, despite our occasional virtuous intentions. We can’t save ourselves – not with our own cleverness or hard work or ordered thinking. No, we need an OUTSIDE power to intervene in our lives and set things right “by might, not merit”. The incarnation of Christ is such an injection of light from outside into the dark world. The resurrection of Christ is the explosion of that same disease-and-death-reversing light.

If there is one way I’d like most to tweak Girard’s general theory, it’s that I would like him to stop seeing sacrificial violence under every bush. Yes, it IS often there of course and it’s wise for us to realize that, but there may be something else instead. There may be the resurrection of Jesus, or at least an allusion to it under that same bush. As Tolkien said (in the voice of Gandalf), ‘There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.’ Cannot the Holy Spirit also (quite miraculously) erase our rivalry as well? I think so and I’d like to be able to discern it when he does.

KJV-only folks should read the translators preface to the 1611 edition

“It is better to make doubt of those things which are secret, than to strive about those things that are certain… For as it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of those things that are evident; to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgement of the judicious) questionable, can be no less presumption. Therefore, as St. Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for finding out the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good; yeah, is necessary, as we are persuaded.”

OK. The old language is a bit hard to follow, but in short:

1. Where scripture is vague, we should be vague.
2. A variety of translations are a good thing.

So where is that passage from? Wait for it…

…from the original 1611 preface to the Authorized Version, that is, the King James, written by the translators themselves. Oh the irony if they knew how their text would be treated by KJV-only folks in America some 400 years later.

The Translators to the Reader: The Original Preface of the King James Version of 1611 Revisited, edited by Rhodes and Lupas. Quotes in Lamin Sanneh’s Translating the Message.

Producing an Oromo braille bible, Part 3

Time was running out. My friend Tafesse is leaving for Ethiopia in just a few weeks, to live in Sebeta and help support the work there. He wasn’t coming back for six months so if I was going to get anything useful done, it would have to be soon. I decided to grit my teeth and just work from the PDF copy.

I began by pasting all the text straight from the PDF into Word. Then I used selective formatting find and replace to remove all the footnotes and inline annotation marks. I also “read” through the entire thing and cleaned up spots where the text flow had gotten mangled during paste, removed other extraneous formatting, such as navigation headings and page numbers. I now had a very messy plain text copy. From there, I wrote a script to massage and format the text for the brailler. I wrote it in PHP since that is what I use everyday in my job now, though I still miss C#. The script reads everything in, eliminates word-splitting hyphens that occurred on line breaks, converts capital letters to ascii braille format (comma prefix style), and makes numerous other punctuation substitutions and spacing corrections. It then wraps the entire text to 29 cell width, then pads it with 4 cells of space on the left of each line. Finally, it loops through the text and extracts inline verse numbers and places them in the left margin space in the appropriate line.

The Gospel of John ended up being 4311 lines in this format, each exactly 33 characters long plus a carriage return, 25 lines per page. A few of the finer points about the braille format for the Oromo were graciously answered by David at Duxbury Systems, maker of braille transcribing software, even though I’m not actually a paying customer (yet).

I began printing my first draft on my old hand-me-down Freedom Scientific “Braille Blazer”. It looked beautiful(!) – for about 10 pages. Then the brailler choked on me and began skipping dots. Some of them were very faint. It would occasionally make a screeching sound. Then it would insert random page advances for no apparent reason. Everything was going wrong. Fortunately, pushing through this sort of thing is maybe the only thing I’m decently skilled at. After numerous trial and error runs, I discovered that anything else but a very strict stream of data would make the old embosser wig out and cause any number of unpredictable and page-ruining behaviors. I also found that if ran for more than about 2 minutes straight, it would begin to skip. Tearing it apart and blowing compressed air on everything seemed to help as bit, as did banging on it hard, but in the end, I found the device could just not be trusted to print more than one single page at a time, which an equal amount of rest between pages. Oh, and you absolutely HAD to clear it’s memory buffer inbetween each page using a special three-finger key combination on the control pad. BUT, if you did all that right, and prayed, it would produce a nice page of braille. And so that’s what I did all week long whenever I had a spare minute, I’d get it banging away on another page, then tear it off, make sure it wasn’t hosed, remove the tractor edges, and start it up again.

IMG 1912 from Matt Jepsen on Vimeo.

As it neared completion, I began working on the cover page. This was a lot of fun. I wrote it in Oromo, Amharic, and English, on pages pre-embossed in Oromo braille. I even got to put the Oromo dictionary I bought in Ethiopia to good use.

170 single-side pages is pretty thick! In the end I divided it into 5 volumes held together with plastic comb binding. My wife helped me put the finishing touches on it tonight.

So it’s done! Praise God. The Gospel of John in braille, in the Oromo language – the first copy to ever exist. I’m excited to hear how it’s received by the fellowship of blind Christians in Sebeta, many of whom are literate in braille.

I just finished reading Lamin Sanneh’s most important work, ‘Translating the Message’. It’s inspired me to keep going when this project got rough.

Producing an Oromo braille bible, Part 2

Setbacks everywhere!

First I need the text of the scriptures in Oromo. Surely a quick Google search will pull it up. Nope. I searched for hours and couldn’t find a clean copy anywhere and the fragments i did find were for an old (and apparently inferior) copy from the early 90s. There is an Android app that contains the text, so I downloaded the package for it and tried to crack it open. But the text was stored in encrypted SQLite files. Dead end. After much searching, I finally found a PDF-only version of the New Testament on the Bible Gateway site. Somehow, it had totally slipped through the cracks of my earlier searches. Or maybe I was so bent on finding a plain text copy, I had ignored it. The PDF copy is still a long way from what I really need though.

The same day that I discovered that copy, the updated version from 2006, I finally heard back from some folks at the International Bible Society. I had tried emailing and calling a bunch of different people there, but hadn’t made much headway. I ended up filling out a long permission request form with them and they think it likely that I’ll eventually be able to get the source files from them along with explicit permission to reprint the material in braille. That’s cool, but could still take months.

In other news, I’m having numerous hardware problems. Braille embossers are rather expensive (about $4000) and despite the fact that we use a lot of braille in our house, we haven’t ever shelled out the bucks for one. Someone gave us an old small one for free a while back, but I had only had limited success ever getting it to print anything without choking. I had chalked up my failure to not have the right software to talk to the thing. The most widely used software is made by Duxbury and costs another $600. This is an experimental project I’m trying to do on the cheap! That’s not going to fly. I don’t want to use the small brailler anyway since it only takes 8.5″ x 11″ paper. It would take a lot fewer pages to use the more common larger format, especially if I could print double-sided, slightly offset dots like the pros do.

Behold, a much nicer and newer braille embosser appears on eBay for only $250! It’s big and mean and even has a legit USB interface (instead of a 36-pin parallel port). We jump on it. It arrives from Texas a few weeks later, weighing all of 50 pounds.

…and, it doesn’t work. Oh it tries to work. The electronic interface works and it powers up, but the page advance motor is apparently hosed and when placed in diagnostic mode, it appears only half the dot-punching solenoids are functioning. To top it off, it plays the Chopin funeral dirge melody on power-on, indicating that it’s self-test has failed for (who knows) what reason. So it makes a lot of noise, but in the end just punches the same few dots over and over. I reach for my tools, but it’s been carefully constructed to NOT be user-serviceable. I check with the manufacturer. Sounds like $500 minimum just to have someone take a look at it. I complain to the seller on eBay and he miraculously opts to take it back at no charge. Amazing! So in the end I’m not out any money, but I’m back to where I started – still not having a good way to print.

About this same time, I receive word that my friend Tafesse is returning to Ethiopia to live in Sebeta and work with the ministry there. He’s leaving in early March and will likely be there for 6 months. Of, if only I could send a first draft with him! It looks grim though at this point.

Techniques for avoiding miscommunication, and how “love” confounds them all

So what do you do with a word when it’s meaning has so dramatically changed in the ears of it’s hearers that using it is almost certain to miscommunicate dreadfully?

At that point, the speaker must stop and chose whether to

A) adjust and use a different word or phrase instead that hopefully means the same thing, or

B) talk longer and provide additional clarifying background information such that the word can then be successfully used just-in-time on the lately educated listener, or

C) abandon the idea altogether as there is no feasible substitute and the risk of miscommunication is too great.

Example 1: The speaker wishes to say that Scrooge from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol behaved “niggardly”, but as this word will almost certainly be heard in listeners ears as having something to do with the the taboo word “nigger”, he opts to use the word “stingy” instead. (Option A)

Example 2: The writer is telling a story about how a grandfather let slip what all the children were going to receive for Christmas gifts that year. She loves the metaphorical phrase “he let the cat out of the bag” but realizes that many of her readers will be from South Asia and English will be their second language. She is concerned they might not be familiar with the idiom and so she adds a parenthetical explanation for possibly confused readers. (Option B)

Example 3: The academic theologian is talking about how the temple cult of ancient Israel included ceremonial animal sacrifice. However, he realizes that to his audience, the word “cult” has only ever been used to describe dangerous religious sects like the Church of Scientology, or worse, groups of Satanists in fiction and horror movies. The idea that their own faith could be legitimately described in a sentence that contains the word “cult” would be distasteful to them in a way that no short explanation can fix (Option B). He could reword everything to talk about “ceremonies” or “acts of devotion” (Option A), but feels what he’s trying to say would sound clunky. He decides to just axe that part of his presentation completely as it’s not really essential to his main thesis and more likely to add noise. (Option C)

Example 4: An financial analyst being interviewed on TV attempts to explain the latest accounting scandal with an insurance firm on Wall Street. He tosses around the words “revenue”, “profit”, “income”, “earnings”, “dividends”, and “credits” without realizing that much of the audience doesn’t understand the subtle differences between all these things, given the context. (Isn’t profit and revenue the same thing? Wait, what?) Nearly all the listeners, including the interviewer are left confused. He should have used a generous mix of options A, B, and C articulated above.

So far, so good. These are basic communication principals really. This has endless application in the realms of gospel preaching and bible translation. It also helps explain why an old translation may become deficient overtime. If numerous bible scholars thought the word “propitiation” was accurate and useful in years past, but you are worried that using it will miscommunicate, you can use a word like “appease” instead, and risk introducing baggage associated with that word. You can stop and give everyone a mini-lesson on what “propitiation” means and why it’s in the bible. Or you can choose to not use the word and all and describe the passage some other way.

Here is 1 John 2:2 in several versions:

New King James Version
And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

Reformation Study Bible
And He Himself is the propitiation* for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

* A propitiation is a sacrifice to God meant to take away the enmity brought by sin between God and the worshiper. Only Christ can be an effective propitiation.

New International Version
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

The Message
When he served as a sacrifice for our sins, he solved the sin problem for good—not only ours, but the whole world’s.

The King James, even in it’s modernized form contains the original word. An example study bible includes an explanatory footnote (Option B). The more contemporary NIV decides to replace it with “atoning sacrifice” (Option A). Peterson in The Message decides to rewrite the sentence too. (Option A)

Of course in this context, translating scripture entirely, Option C (throwing it out) is not an option.

What do you do if you are translating scripture into another language – one where no equivalent word exists? Do you actually INVENT a new word? Maybe! You might have to. That’s the nuclear bomb version of Option B though and will need to be done carefully as zero of your readers will initially know what it means and it could take several generations for that to be sufficiently patched up.

I think a bigger problem arises when the word in question has had it’s meaning mangled beyond recognition, BUT no worthy alternative exists. The word I have in mind is “love”. Incidentally, we go back to 1 John:

1 John 4:7-8

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

I just overheard a guy in the coffee shop today trying to explain how “God is love” to another dude. Much confusion ensued.

The word “love” is a complete train wreck today. As far as I can tell, it’s been a problem for centuries, so I’m not quite sure how much worse it is today, but nevertheless things aren’t good.

“I love coffee.”

“Love is the answer.”
(Answer to what? How’s that supposed to work?)

“Love is blind”
(Sure doesn’t seem like it, are you sure?)

“Love wins”
(What lost exactly? How was it fighting? What did that/will that look like?)

“Marriage is about love, not gender. – On an LGBTQ poster I saw yesterday.
(OK, so does that mean it IS about sex, or it isn’t?)

Love Actually – Movie title.
(Sheds zero light on the subject.)

Pop radio always provides endless great examples:

“Love me harder!” – Ariana Grande song
(The music video confirms this is pretty much exclusively about sex, not devotion. Also, why is The Weeknd on this track?)

“I hate u, I love u.” – Gnash, another band currently on the radio at the time of writing this.
(Can you have both at the same time? Yes.)

“Love is evolution’s very best day” – Bono, U2
(What does that even mean?)

“I don’t wanna know know know, who’s takin’ you home home home, and lovin’ you so so so, the way I used to love you oh” – Maroon 5, currently on the radio about every 10 minutes
(So how exactly did you “used to lover her so”? By takin’ her home? Maybe she got tired of that and wanted someone who would be a good father and not go clubbing and drink too much booze every night (see the other verses). So maybe the new dude she’s with isn’t “loving” her anything like you were. Maybe it’s really different. Then again, maybe it’s more of the same.

“If you love your kids, you won’t spank them.”
(This is a steaming heap of nonsense.)

“Be careful to show love to these people by not triggering them.”
(That may be kindness, depending on the context, but I’m pretty sure love is something else.)

“I would love to get a new iPhone 7.”
(That’s nice, but that’s a pretty different use than the above.)

When people encounter the word “love” in scripture (and it’s there over 500 times in most translations), what are they going to think? Who knows. Just like people who had abusive fathers have difficulty imagining God the Father, our exposure to a myriad of meanings for “love” also causes God’s holy word to fall on confused ears.

I think there are something we can do to model love in such a way as to make it’s meaning more accurate. A strong community will have more of this. Certainly we can educate people on it’s true meaning, but this is difficult and it’s effectiveness is probably overrated.

I believe that at the end of the day, the Holy Spirit must give us all a deep (often unarticulatable) sense of what “love” is. Many of the Christian mystic writers speak often of a deeper sense of the meaning of God’s love that was given to them over the course of a life of meditation and prayer. It’s a common theme and they always struggle to describe it. Most of them end up falling back on that word, “love” again. I think we need someone perfect to show us what it means.

Books read in 2016

I didn’t read as many books or blog as much this year because life is busier. Kids take a lot of time. Work takes a lot of time. It’s that season. In addition, a lot of time I would have spent reading was spent practicing Amharic! We’ll see what next year holds – it may be even shorter.

The Sword in the Stone, T.H. White (read aloud to the kids)
A Celtic Miscellany, Tran. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson
Born Standing Up, Steve Martin (audio book)
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson (read aloud to the kids)
The Christian Future or the Modern Mind Outrun, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy
The Design of Everyday Things, Donald A. Norman
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, Jeff Ryan (read aloud with my oldest son)
The Door in the Wall, Marguerite de Angeli (read aloud to the kids, 2nd time)
The Juniper Tree: and Other Tales from Grimm, Lore Segal and Maurice Sendak version (read some aloud do the kids)
The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling (read aloud to the kids)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (read aloud to the kids, partial)
Solomon Among the Postmoderns, Peter Leithart
Several small (and difficult to find) books on the history of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, some of them edited by Kessis Kefyalew Merahi.

Lonely Planet Ethiopian Amharic Phrasebook (very well worn!)
The Essential Guide to Amharic, Andrew Tadross and Abraham Teklu (used this to death)
Concise Amharic Dictionary, Wolf Leslau (referred to at least a thousand times)

Producing an Oromo braille bible, Part 1

In my recent travels to Ethiopia, I ventured out of the capital into Oromo territory for the first time. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group within Ethiopia, making up 35% of the population – over 35 million people. My daughter, as well as many other Ethiopians I have met are Oromo or at least partially so even if their names are Amharic. In the rural areas, this distinction often still matters and not all the groups get along with each other. As you near Addis Ababa, the capital, ethnicities melt together and it can be difficult to distinguish between Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, and other groups. I had several people tell me in Addis that it is just something that doesn’t come up in conversation there. One man told me that he didn’t know (or care) about his wife’s ancestry and only even learned the details after they were married. In the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city, it can sometimes be difficult to relate to the political unrest experienced more sharply in other parts of the country.

One area where the distinction still obviously exists is in their language. The Oromo are proud of their language and though many of them learn to speak some Amharic (everyone I met could to varying degrees), they will still speak the Oromo language primarily. The official name for the language is “Affan Oromo”. “affan” means ‘tongue’. Almost the same word, “aff” means “mouth” in Amharic. What I found though is that everyone there calls it “oromifa”, which is funny because this word is not even mentioned in the long Wikipedia article on the subject or any of the guide books I have, but seems to be the dominant name on the ground.

The organization I have been working with, Zena Wengal, has fortunately been able to acquire many braille copies of the Amharic bible for blind Christians there. Lutheran Braille Workers is a wonderful organization and has been able to supply them with many copies over the past few years. Keep in mind that an Amharic New Testament is 33 volumes in length, so this means thousands of volumes. Someone did the work of properly transcribing and formatting the Amharic bible into braille some years back, and so they have all the files to emboss at hand.

There are many blind among the Oromo though and they need a braille bible in their own language! A tiny handful have access to audio bibles, but the bulk cannot study the scriptures at all on their own. They must have someone read to them. Yes, the most educated among them could hack their way through an Amharic copy, but the symbology is completely different and the vocabulary relatively advanced for someone who just uses Amharic as a second language occasionally.

(Photo: Over 50 Oromo men and women gather at a Zena Wengal service at a church in Sebeta on December 17, 2016.)

So with all this in mind, I set out to get a hold of some copies of Oromo bibles in braille to send to my friends there. You can find anything on the internet right? Well, not really – not if it doesn’t exist! That’s right, they don’t exist. I’ve talked to a lot of people and hunted down every online trail I could and I’m pretty confident that none have ever been produced. (I would love to discover that I’m wrong!) If any exist, (and I think it likely one at least partially exists somewhere, though I haven’t been able to confirm), it must have been a unique one-off printing.

Compass Braille, located in the UK, has expressed interest in producing an Oromo braille bible. It’s on their shorter list of new languages to transcribe and format, but after speaking with them, it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be done any time soon. It could easily be years away. In the meantime, Lutheran Braille Workers doesn’t have the money and personnel to do the job. They are busy filling a large demand for Spanish braille bibles in South America this year and next. It turns out that LBW and Compass are really the two big producer’s of Christian braille materials for the blind on earth. A few other small organizations have come and gone. It seems they have an unofficial agreement not to step on each other’s toes. Their mission is certainly the same and they both operate entirely by donation, often working closely with the International Bible Society to fill larger orders.

This required me to split my mission. In the short-term, I’d like to get a copy (or several copies really) of at least the Gospel of John in Oromo to my friends there sometime in the coming year. In the longer-term, I’d like to help get the Oromo scriptures transcribed into braille, either by assisting with the process directly (with my wife who is a certified braille transcriber), or by perhaps helping to personally fund and/or petition for Compass’s attention to turn that direction sooner rather than later.

I’m going to record my efforts here on my blog for fun. Someone else searching for info on the same thing or trying to accomplish something similar with another language may find it helpful in the future.

Misc notes from Peter Leithart’s Solomon Among the Postmoderns

I saved Leithart’s book Solomon Among the Postmoderns to read while I was on the 19 hours of flight between here and Ethiopia. I figured it was fitting since Ethiopia was ruled by the Solomonic dynasty for centuries, at least in legend. Here a few passages of interest I copied down in my notes.

As usual, there is something about Leithart’s work that is a breath of fresh air. His explanation of how his book lacks an “agenda” (some urgent thing it’s supposed to accomplish or stir up the crowd about) is a great place to start.

I don’t propose an “agenda” for the church in postmodern times, partly because “agendas” have a tendency to perpetuate the worst features of modern Christianity. Of course Christians must act, and act in ways that thoughtfully take account of the world in which we are acting. If “agenda” means no more than that, then I am all in favor of agendas. In that sense, St. Benedict had an “agenda” for Europe. Agendas, however, have a tendency to shortcut a thoughtful taking-account of the world and a tendency to treat Christianity as a spiritual machine. That is what I want to avoid. At times the Christian agenda may be to wait and do nothing, which, come to think of it, was a large part of Benedict’s “agenda.” Instead of an agenda, I propose a STANCE, a stance of faith, joy, and celebration in the midst of postmodern mist.

The theory of progress rests on the notion that there is a cut in time between all that went before and what comes after the beginning of modernity. Modernity establishes itself by digging a monumental ditch, a “great divide,” between the past and the present, between those still living in the past and those who are fully in touch with the possibilities of the present. The modern distinction of us and them and the boundaries that accompany it map out the world as modernity sees it. Modernity is an act of cartography, a zoning operation, an exercise in “chrono-politics.”

Moderns believe that the ancients are infants, not giants, and believe themselves, coming at the climax of ages of human discovery and experience, to be the true ancients, the wisest of history’s sages. Modernity is the messianism of the contemporary.

“Our grandparents were infants. WE are the giants. WE are quite different than the crap that came before it and THIS time, we can prove it.” The tech startup culture is rife with this attitude, as are the pop scientists on TV. The virtue of humility (or even self-skepticism) need not be cultivated by those with the knowledge of the whole world supposedly at their literal fingertips. Much of postmodernism’s value lies in it’s power to undermine the ridiculous overconfidence of modernist thought.

“The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age.” – Lewis Mumford

Who was Lewis Mumford? I had never heard of him, but his work in sociology and history in the early 19th century is pretty interesting. Wikipedia is a good place to start.

Postmodern notions of knowledge arise partly from loss of confidence in this modern us-them distinction, a loss of confidence that occurred within specific social and cultural conditions. Moderns encountered the cultural Other, but not nearly so pervasively or constantly or intimately as we do in contemporary, postmodern times. The more WE encounter THEM in life or virtual life, the more WE and THEY are mixed together in the same neighborhoods, the less different toe two seem. It becomes more and more plausible that WE might learn a thing or two from THEM.

This has been my main takeaway from studying theology and ecclesiology. I have something to learn from Calvinists, Anabaptists, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostals, Africans, Chinese, people who write really big books, and people who can’t read. I want to open up this gate wider rather than constrict the circle, even if that would be safer or more predictable.

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 temps the thought that messages exist independently of persons, that the messages are not communications but mere “texts.” The “dead 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?

I blogged about this separately here.

Hobbes discerned a threat in the rising professionalization of science, which he saw as the establishment of another priesthood. So long as there was a realm of knowledge outside the state’s control – in scientific societies, for instance – there was a remaining threat to public peace. Knowledge could be “pacified” only if the state managed its production and dissemination. For Hobbes, new scientist was but old priest writ large; it was no accident that scientists also wore white robes and claimed to perform esoteric magic behind closed doors. Even Hobbes’s philosophical monism was politically charged: once it is admitted that there are two sorts of substance, matter and spirit, then there is an opening for “seeing double,” for double loyalty.

Think about the current arguments in the public square about causes of climate change (or whatever it’s called now) and then reread that paragraph.

Increasingly, even policy decisions respond to and are shaped by nongovernmental agencies (NGOs). Instead of merely seeking national self-interest, the desideratum of the realpolitik of the modern nation-state, governments are pressured into cooperation by NGOs, many of which have an international reach. From her Vermont farmhouse, Jody Williams launched a movement to rid the world of landmines. She sent e-mails by the hundreds to government officials and activists, eventually won the support of super-celebrity Princess Diana, pushed for an international treaty banning the manufacture and use of mines, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in the process. This is classic postmodern politics: a nonelected nonofficial employs communications technologies, nongovernmental agencies, and celebrity to shame nation-states into signing a treaty.

Do you find this encouraging? I do. See, postmodernism isn’t all despair. Sometimes it’s the antidote to modern despair.

All is shepherding the wind. Wind is spirit. Humans are animated by spirit and beyond human shepherding.
(paraphrased from p.162)

There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it and constructed large siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man. So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the wisdom of the poor man is despised and his words are not heeded.
(Ecc. 9:14-16)

This is a classic case of “subjugated knowledge,” knowledge ignored because it came from the margins, because it came from THEM and not from US.

We think we are smart, but do we completely discount and ignore knowledge from the margins? In doing so, we miss really important secrets that are lying right under out noses.

The psalms as antidote to the worn-out praise of modern advertising

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.