Pressure to perform vs. thankfulness, OR “check your privilege” vs. “count your blessings”

I scribbled the following down after reading the intro to Alan Jacob’s excellent newer biography of C.S. Lewis, The Narnian.

That Lewis wrote many of his books – much of his best work, amongst constant interruption and surrounded by family challenges, is of great interest to me. On the one hand, it means that “I have no excuse” for not producing and exercising creativity when I am (seemingly) surrounded by them. But from that analysis comes just more pressure to perform and despair upon reflection. But is there another angle to this story? Yes – one of gifts, one of grace. Despite all these things, Lewis was gifted a great many things by God, even in the midst of endless trial and tedium. From one view, he was a brilliant self-made man. From the other side, someone who, whatever his talents, had all of his best things pretty much just handed to him.

I have often felt the latter about my own successes. The year I received a raise that nearly doubled my income as a young man, I did not feel like I deserved it or had striven toward it, but rather that it had fallen in my lap. My wife has stuck with me though I don’t deserve her affection. I feel that I have been given very excellent and interesting children, through no doing of my own. I think I have substantial wealth and freedom in my current career and home, but where did it come from? Because I kick so much ass? Nothing of the sort. Whatever ass is being kicked, the boots are not my own, though I sometimes mime the swinging of my feet.

Upon reading this, someone may spit out a curse followed by a comment about how I should perhaps be “checking my privilege”. But that’s in fact, in a sense, exactly what this is. I think the flip side of the coin engraved with “check your privilege” reads “count your blessings”.

The moment when music production is demystified

As a teen in the mid-nineties, I spent several years imagining myself to be a recording musician. The centerpiece of my activities was a massive Turtle Beach sampler/synthesizer full-size add-on card in my PC with a whopping 32 megs of expansion memory. I met a group of folks online in a seedy IRC chat room with similar ambitions and who traded pirated sound bank CDs in the mail since everyone’s dial-up internet was much too slow at the time. One of the discs I was able to collect and experiment with was a popular collection of drum loops called Liquid Grooves.

About this same time is when I first began listening to Celtic music. Maire Brennan had just released a new solo album, which I quickly ordered on CDNow.com (long before it was bought out by Amazon). Listening through it, something sounded familiar. Yes indeed – several of the tracks were built on samples from Liquid Grooves. It was one of those key memorable demystifying experiences when you see how the sausage is made behind the scenes of some piece of art. “Hmmm, maybe producing music is not quite as mysterious as I thought.” I said to myself. Forget all this talk about genius and inspiration. If you can break it down into small enough pieces, it doesn’t seem so daunting or impossible. It’s just hard work to do well. If it made sense for an internationally respected singer to use a stock drum loop instead of write and craft an original percussion part and hire a drummer (or drummers) to play it, well who was I to argue? It sounded good.

Jesus the communicator considering his audience

Both of the following passages were gospel readings in the lectionary this past month. In both of them I noticed a curious element – God’s immediate awareness of who was listening to him and his on-the-fly adjustment of his speech to better communicate to them.

Mark 8:31-33
And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke this word openly. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”

John 12:27-36
But Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor.
“Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven, saying, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.”
Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to Him.”
Jesus answered and said, “This voice did not come because of Me, but for your sake. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” This He said, signifying by what death He would die.

In the first passage from Mark 8, Peter takes Jesus aside and chastises him. Perhaps Jesus is about to reply to him in a more gentle or private way, but when he looks around and sees the disciples right there listening in, he switches tactics and rebukes Peter openly with the now famous “Get behind me Satan!”. It’s remarkable when Jesus talks like this as its not the usual mode we see in the gospels. But here he decides to make more of a spectacle and we are told why. It was the context of who was listening in. I think we can conclude that if Jesus had been sufficiently alone with Peter, his reply would have been different. Context matters.

In John 12, we find one of only three times instances where God speaks directly and audibly from heaven. Afterwards though, Jesus lets the people know, “Oh, by the way, that voice wasn’t for ME. I didn’t need to be reminded or assured or anything. It was for YOU all standing around listening. So pay attention!” Apparently, Jesus felt the need to clarify things for the people listening, lest they jump to a wrong conclusion (e.g. “angels are speaking to him or something”). It depended on who the audience was.

Jesus’s words are now dry ink on the page and the canon of scripture is etched in stone. Does God then still adapt his words to each of us today? I think so. The Holy Spirit does this when we meditate on his word. He brings certain things to the forefront. He guides us to skip over parts that may distract or confuse us at the moment. We probably don’t even realize when this is happening. I believe this kind of selective awareness when we read the bible does not originate entirely within our own psychology, but is actively directed by a third party – the third person of the Trinity. If Jesus were physically here with us in the same room in a conversation with us, he would do the same thing – adjust his words to best fit the listener and the situation.

Robot Coffee in Tokyo

My oldest son and I were in Japan last week and got to have coffee served to us by a robot. I’ve posted the video below. Now the technology itself is nothing impressive and robots with similar abilities have been around since the early 1990s. BUT, it was still fun to interact with one in the wild!

Books read in 2017

There was a lot less blogging but more reading this year.

  • Translating the Message, Lamin Sanneh
  • All Creatures Great and Small, James Harriot (read aloud to the kids)
  • The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen
  • The Reason for God, Timothy Keller
  • Taking God at His Word, Kevin DeYoung (partial)
  • Evidence of Satan in the Modern World, Léon Cristiani
  • Psychology & Christianity: Five Views, Ed. Eric Johnson
  • African Friends and Money Matters, David E. Maranz
  • Beyond Surgery: Injury, Healing, and Religion at an Ethiopian Hospital, Anita Hannig
  • The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay, Christopher Clapham
  • Delighting in the Trinity, Michael Reeves (partial)
  • The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin (read aloud to the kids)
  • Towards an African Narrative Theology, Joseph Healey and Donald Sybertz (partial)
  • The Prince Warriors, Priscilla Shirer and Gina Detwiler (read aloud to the kids)
  • The Fruit of Lips, Eugen Rosenstock Huessy
  • Songs of Distant Earth, Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Forbidden Door, Jeanne K. Norweb (read aloud to the kids)
  • Weep Not, Child, Ngugi wa Thiong’o
  • Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (read aloud to the kids)
  • Creed or Chaos?, Dorothy Sayers (2nd time)
  • Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager, Jim Harries
  • The Celtic Way of Evangelism, George G. Hunter III
  • The Chains of Heaven: An Ethiopian Romance, Philip Marsden
  • Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
  • The Master of Wisdom, Jeanne K. Norweb (read aloud to the kids)
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson
  • Reviving Old Scratch, Richard Beck
  • Danny, The Champion of the World, Roald Dahl (read aloud to the kids)
  • Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa, Jim Harries
  • The Night the Bear Ate Goomba, Patrick McManus (partial, read aloud to the kids)
  • Finding God, Larry Crabb (2nd time)
  • The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester

Time and Rockstar: Simultaneously lamenting and celebrating the sexual abuse of women

In 2017 we saw an explosion of wealthy and powerful men exposed in public as serial sexual abusers, using their positions and influence to prey on vulnerable women. Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and scores of others in the media and entertainment industry were revealed to be, behind their feminism-affirming public personas, a parade of dicks and dirtbags. It’s not like this is anything new or that even a fraction of a percent of the foul play made it into the limelight, but it was a sizable enough portion for many folks to take notice. Time Magazine, highlighting the phenomenon, decided to make the “Silence Breakers” – the women who risked their livelihoods to fight back – the official “person of the year” on the cover of their latest issue.

Oh look, there’s Taylor Swift there on the cover too. And what’s on the radio right after her song? The new hip hop tune ‘rockstar’ by rappers Post Malone and Savage 21. It’s been playing at least once an hour on the local top 40 station every day in December. When I open up the iTunes store on my phone, a full-size ad for the album covers the screen. It’s just coming down from #1 on the Billboard charts. Let’s briefly take a look at the lyrics, shall we?

I’ve been f**kin’ hoes and poppin’ pillies
Man, I feel just like a rockstar

Drankin’ Henny, bad bitches jumpin’ in the pool
And they ain’t got on no bra
Hit her from the back, pullin’ on her tracks
And now she screamin’ out, “¡No más!” (yeah, yeah, yeah)
They like, “Savage, why you got a twelve car garage
And you only got six cars?”

Here in the rockstar song, we have the celebration of a rich and powerful man, bragging about having sex with a woman he just met, pulling on her hair while she is, literally screaming, “No more!” – essentially, “Stop it!”. The hell is going on in this song? Sounds like as soon as this gal can wrestle herself away from the abusive “Savage 21” or whatever the artist calls himself, she should join the #MeToo movement and get the community support she needs to face her abuser. Maybe she can get on the cover of a magazine for it. But nope. She’s in the song, as we pay millions of dollars to make this track #1 and honor the (real or imagined) escapades of these young men.

This kind of gangster storytelling and gloating has been standard schmandard fare in rap music for decades. There is nothing new to see here. The only point I want to make is the incredible amount of cognitive dissonance it takes to hold these two things next to each other in the mainstream media with seemingly no sense of irony. By “mainstream media” I don’t mean some amorphous blob of stuff I just don’t happen to appreciate, like some old man yelling “darn kids, get off my lawn!”. I simply mean, in the simplest sense, national television, national syndicated magazines, news, radio, and top reach brands on the internet.

There, in front of the nation, side-by-side, literally seconds apart from each other we find the following: a concerned-looking journalist interviewing an actress who was pressured to sleep with the director in order to be cast in a movie. Immediately afterwards, the top song on pop radio plays as bumper music, blasting with a catchy drum rhythm: “I’ve been f**kin’ hoes, green hundreds in my safe, hundred bitches in my trailer, tryna grab up on my pants”.

I’m not making this up. Let me suggest that the first problem (sexual abuse by powerful men) cannot improve simultaneously while we ramp up the artful idolization of sexual abuse by powerful men. This isn’t rocket science. The first one isn’t going to get better while the second one gets worse. They’ll either both continue to get better as sexual morality is held in higher esteem or they’ll both get worse. You can’t effectively honor women on the cover of the final Time magazine while simultaneously dishonoring them in the top song on pop radio. The two things cancel each other out. To heal the world we need a deeper and more excellent approach.


Postscript: Yes, I realize the song ‘rockstar’ may in fact be tongue-in-cheek, that is, intended to be satire. It is certainly interpreted by some to be. I suspect it is to some degree, but regardless, the overt sexual violence in it offers a stark contrast to the sympathy with the abuse victims it sits next to. I also don’t buy this line of reasoning as an excuse in general. For example, I think the 2014 film The Kingsmen ultimately glorified debauchery, even as it satirized and critiqued the real debauchery of James Bond films.

Blog shuffle

Not many people read this blog of course, but occasionally a friend or acquaintance will go to look something up and they will inevitably have trouble finding it because the root of the domain points to my old coffee enthusiast blog, which I no longer update. This is the “main” blog, but it’s lived for years in a subdirectory.

Well, they have now essentially traded-places. The coffee blog can still be found at /coffee and simply typing in the domain (moscowcoffeereview.com) will take you here. That should avoid some confusion in the future. I probably should have done this eons ago!

‘Solemn’ as feast, not just fast

My friend Austin posted this except from the preface that C.S. Lewis wrote to Paradise Lost.

Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity. The ball in the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a ‘solemnity’. The feast at the beginning of Gawain and the Green Knight is very much a solemnity. A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixus est. Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not. The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for a pomp–and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of a ‘solemnity’. To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people to enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connection with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast–all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual… . You are to expect pomp. You are to ‘assist’, as the French say, at a great festal action.

This is great on several different levels, so I wanted to save it here. It informs my recent foray into Anglican worship in the past month and why some parts feel uncomfortable to me (or others!) when it seems like they shouldn’t be.

It also makes me realize that I said my line about “solemnity” totally wrong when I played Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year. If only I had known!

For in the temple by and by with us
These couples shall eternally be knit:
And, for the morning now is something worn,
Our purposed hunting shall be set aside.
Away with us to Athens; three and three,
We’ll hold a feast in great solemnity.

Because, in my head, “solemn” only ever meant something like “grave”, I couldn’t bring myself to say this line in anything but an over-serious manner. It should have been more joyful. More feast, less fast. Sometimes worship, even in heavy formality, should be the same thing.

Where Josephus skips the part where Rome gets destroyed

Josephus, in book X of his Antiquities of the Jews, tries to explain the life of the prophet Daniel to his Roman audience. Included is the account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream from Daniel 2. But Josephus stops at the part where Daniel explains how the Roman empire will take over and doesn’t explain the great stone at the end crushing the statue of gold, bronze, iron, and clay. Instead he mumbles the following:

Daniel did also declare the meaning of the stone to the king but I do not think proper to relate it, since I have only undertaken to describe things past or things present, but not things that are future; yet if any one be so very desirous of knowing truth, as not to wave such points of curiosity, and cannot curb his inclination for understanding the uncertainties of futurity, and whether they will happen or not, let him be diligent in reading the book of Daniel, which he will find among the sacred writings.
(Josephus, Antiquities, 10.210)

How embarrassing to have to explain a prophecy about how God will likely wipe out the reader’s kingdom! He decided to just leave that part out. It’s just like history books today.

When Disability Incites Misplaced Charity

Here are some great thoughts from my wife, who typed this up and sent it to me while she was out of town for a few day. It begins with an extended excerpt from a new biography of the Inklings.

“The Four Loves sustains the avuncular tones of the recorded talks as Lewis analyzes four forms of love: affection, friendship, Eros and Charity. The first three arising in the natural order of things may be beautiful or good but have the potential to be twisted into something ugly and destructive. Thus, Storche, or affection, the warm animal love between mother and child or dog and master May become a tyrannous stranglehold, as Lewis explains in a passage that may reflect his experiences with Mrs. Moore. If people are already unlovable, a continual demand on their part as a right to be loved: their manifest sense of injury; their reproaches, weather loud and clamorous or merely implicit in every book and gesture of resentful self-pity produce in us a sense of guilt (they are intended to do so), for a fault we could not have avoided and cannot cease to commit. Friendship, too, maybe perverted into exclusivity. Yet it offers incomparable joys, as in Lewis’s glowing account of male friends, gathering in an inn after a hard day’s walking, which doubles as an idealized portrait of the Inklings. Those are the golden sessions: when our slippers are on, our feet spread out toward the blaze, and our drinks at our elbows. When the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens itself to our minds as we talk. And all are free men and equals as if we had first met an hour ago, while at the same time and affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life, natural life, has no better gift to give; who could have deserved it? Eros, too, which binds two individuals together, transforming them into lover and the beloved, harbors its deadly snares, such as obsession and uncontrolled passion. Charity, however, stands alone. Charity, Agape, is supernatural: a sheer gift. Love Himself working in a man. It allows us to do what we would not ordinarily do: Embrace our enemies, kiss lepers, give away money, take on the sufferings of others. Through Charity, we draw close both to God, and to our fellow human beings. Lewis rejects the idea, which he discerns in Augustine’s account of the loss of his friend, Nebridius, that one must beware of creaturely love and embrace only God, who never dies. Instead, he stands with Charles Williams, without mentioning him by name, arguing that human and divine love complement and complete one another. And, that in the beatific vision, the culmination of Charity we will find our earthly beloveds in their completion and consummation, united in God.”

Excerpt from “The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, c. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams”, By Phillip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

Because Lewis defines Charity as coming at the sole impetus of God, he doesn’t acknowledge that Charity also can be warped, or perhaps misdefined, as in the case of unwanted pity, or misplaced altruism. Possibly because Lewis was rarely on the receiving end of such charity, it didn’t really register on his radar, but people with disabilities, especially in the modern era of technology when independence is more achievable, have to push back against this concept continually. When we were adopting our daughter, for instance, we received several comments about our “saintliness” with regards to read adopting a child who has a disability. The idea that parental affection can exist for a child with a disability in equal measure to a non-disabled child did not seem to occur to most people. Additionally, people who have disabilities are rarely seen as bringing in equal measure to the table qualities and attributes which a non-disabled person might covet. Therefore a parent would have to be a “saint” to parent a child with so much less to offer.

This brings us naturally to a discussion of Lewis’s second love: friendship, which he describes rather vividly as existing between “equal and free men”. Interestingly, one of the equal and free men to which Lewis undoubtedly refers, and greatly admired, was Charles Williams who had a significant vision impairment of the sort which inhibited many of his activities. However, he was not encouraged to discuss his vision with his circle of friends; no record of it occurs in any correspondence or records of their interchanges. He was left to get by completely on his own as best he could minimizing the impact that it had on his life at all times.

Likewise, society has encouraged me throughout my life to suppress or ignore any visual problems I may be having and not to identify with the blind community but to struggle through, passing as sighted. The pitfall of exclusivity that Lewis describes in connection with friendship has plagued me on both sides of the blindness and sighted divide, as one group throws gates in my way for receiving any sort of services or belonging their shared set of experiences, while the other mocks my inefficiencies and ineptitudes arising from lack of seeing, and ignores the intense strain I put myself under to do things their way. Thus am I never seen as free and equal and worthy of friendship but am often relegated to the arena of pity disguised as charity unless I am absolutely silent about my perceptions and experiences.

Other friends who are blind describe the same phenomenon. They will describe instances where people ask them if they are lost or need help in a building where they work for example. A sighted person, when reading such a statement does not understand why this should cause offense. The person will invariably say, “Well, weren’t they just trying to be nice?”

What must be understood in the circumstances, is that the blind person is perceived to be in need of charity, where in reality they are simply in need of friendship. Just like any person walking through their workplace looking to engage casually with a coworker, it’s assumed to be on free and equal terms. They belong there. When this assumption unravels because the sighted person decides that the blind person does not belong there and that the blind person is thought to be in need of pity or charity it creates an imbalance in the equality of the interaction.

This inequality constitutes the real pitfall of charity. Of course altruism, especially Christian love motivated solely by God is a wonderful thing. Through it is much suffering alleviated. The problem arises when like the pitfalls of the other loves sin creeps in–in this case in the form of fear or guilt; a sighted person who fears going blind will approach a blind person with the sort of consolation and help that he (or she) imagines he would need in the instance of himself going blind. This deep-seated fear usually results in pity which results in excessive over-helpfulness.

And this misguided charity also results in confusion when the recipient does not react in gratitude but rather in anger and offense. The reason for this is simple: the blind person was not in need of charity to begin with, but rather friendship. Most disabled people who are going about their daily lives desire love, friendship, and affection in equal measures to the general non-disabled public. What they often receive, is pity disguised as charity which is ultimately not from God but is an attempt to allay the giver’s fears or to make the giver feel better about himself. Like the other loves when they fail, charity taken to extreme and lavished upon misidentified subjects becomes smothering. One easy way to identify whether charity is misplaced or not, is to observe the gratitude level of the recipient.

Historically, people unwilling to receive charity were branded as prideful and reprimanded. What we need to do rather, is to realize that ingratitude may indicate an unwarranted amount of charity and a desire instead for affection, friendship or love. The thing needed to make these happen is both an acknowledgment of equality and an acknowledgment of complementarianism where inequality exists. As many disabled thinkers have pointed out, we are all interdependent. Once we accept interdependence and acknowledge that people with disabilities have value to bring to a relationship; that equality can be established and a friendship or romance can flourish.