Jesus taught parables, not systematics

Straightforward propositional communication – which is precisely the kind that bombards us every day – leaves little room for mystery. It proclaims, “This is the truth,” reducing the mystery and wonder of Truth to concrete theological or philosophical statements. Parables, on the other hand, clearly point to the truth, but without violating the mystery of Truth. This allows each of us to experience the truth of Jesus’ words in a manner that’s personally meaningful and transformative.

Parables are very simple. They communicate to children as well as to scholars. And there was always something about children that Jesus loved. Once, when a group of children was brought to Jesus, he said, “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” This wasn’t an endorsement of childishness. Rather, Jesus was reminding all of us to honor the joy and awesome wonder of creation and creation’s God. Likewise, Jesus’ parables are childlike without being childish.

-John Michael Talbot, The Music of Creation, p.102

Jesus taught with parables, and even when he did explain them, his insight was not particularly thorough. You can’t read the Bible like systematic theology. Paul wrote some line-upon-line instruction in Romans, but even that isn’t near as propositional as we would like it to be sometimes. Would it have been nicer if Jesus had ivory tower talk that we could then reword for the popular masses? Well, since his was the only undarkened intellect to walk the face of the earth, I vote we stick with what he did say (parables), and not try too hard to explain them.

It only enhances or illuminates his words to a certain degree. After that, it diminishes his words with the flood of our own.

Who you are versus what you do

One of the major questions all philosophies have to wrestle with is “what makes something what it is?”. Some people call this ontology. To but it another way, “Are you defined by what you do or who you are?” (This could go for objects, not just people, but we’ll stick with people for now.)

A simple example would go something like this:

Is a man a painter because he paints, or is he a painter because that is his title? If he makes his living as an artist, certainly he is a painter. But what about the insurance salesman who also paints in his garage in the evenings. Is he a painter? Well, sort of.

Sometimes, black children raised by white parents are shunned by their black peers for not really being “black”. In this case, they aren’t talking about skin color (which obviously can’t be changed), but about a set of behaviors. So in that case, “black” is defined by what you do, how you act.

Seth Godin recently commented on this in relation to online communities and actions:

The neat thing about the online world is that you are judged almost entirely by your actions, usually based on just your fingers.

If you do generous things, people think you are a generous person.
If you bully people, people assume you are a bully.
If you ask dumb questions, people figure you’re dumb.
Answer questions well and people assume you’re smart and generous.
… you get the idea.

This leads to a few interesting insights.

1. If people criticize you, they are actually criticizing your behavior, not you.
2. If you’re not happy with the perception you generate, change the words you type and the messages you send.
3. When you hear from someone, consider the source. Trolls are almost always trolls through and through, which means that you have no obligation to listen, to respond or to placate. On the other hand, if you can find a germ of truth, can’t hurt to consider it.

In this case, he is drawing attention to the fact that the online medium serves to filter out a lot of “who we are” – our facial expressions, tone of voice, what clothes or perfume we are wearing, how tall we are, and even what friends we are seen with. This makes a place where our identity is defined almost entirely by our volitional behavior. If we flame someone in an online forum we didn’t too it by accident, right? This is a liberating prospect for many. I think it can also be a stifling atmosphere for individuals who’s most admirable traits are less tangible.

Theologians have to deal with this all the time. Of course you’ve heard that “We are sinners not because we sin, but we sin because we are a sinner!” Of course this language is kind of confusing. The point is to affirm the doctrine of original sin, that states we are not born innocent, but carry rebellion toward God in our hearts, inherited from our ancestors, Adam and Eve. So we are sinners, period. Telling a lie or murdering someone doesn’t make us any MORE of a sinner than we already were.

This bleeds pretty quickly into the nature/nurture argument as well.

Calvinists of course ascribe our identity entirely to our essense, not our behavior. We are sinners not because we sin. We are not saved by anything good thing we ever did, not even a thought of faith. We are saved because we are elect. Or not. We are husbands because we are married, not because we treat our wives kindly (or not). Yet you can see how you can carry on with this to the point of absurdity.

So we find some kind of balance where we go back to defining ourselves by what we do. If you say something mean, are you a bully? If all you ever say are mean things, can you prove that you aren’t a bully?

Are you in charge of your own identity, destiny even? Or not?

This is one of the great deep problems. You see it everywhere. Look at Victor Hugo: Inspector Javert was the “good” guy, but really destined to be evil, despite his passionate efforts to be just. Valjean was the “bad” guy, but destined to be good, despite having the regularly lie and evade the law.

This is one of the grand, grand themes of life. How will you resolve it? How will you tell the story?

I really only got to musing about this after reading a section in musician John Michael Talbot’s book. He takes a balanced approach, saying: yes, these things define me, but only so far.

I continually witness the connections between my own body, soul, and spirit. I am both a musician and a singer. I am also a teacher. Fulfilling these responsibilities utilizes all aspects of my being. But suppose I wer to lose my hands, so that I could not play the guitar. Would this make me less “me”? Or suppose I lost my voice, so I could neither sing nor teach. Would this make me lose my uniqueness in God’s sight? or suppose I injured a part of my brain, o that my emotions became confused, or I could no longer grasp or teach all the things I currently talk about. Would I lose the essence of myself? Would I no longer be me? Would I no longer have genuine value or worth?

My music is truly me. It communicates something that is central to my being. My teaching is truly me as well, ad through teaching I communicate concepts and visions that are a very important part of who I am. My emotions are also me, and they reflect my own values about life and God. All of these various aspects reflect me, and to some degree, even are me. They are part of what the Eastern Christian mystics call my energies. But they are not the essence of me.

If I were to lose any or all of these energies or abilities, my essence would remain. I would still be me. The core of my being would remain always. The same is true for you.

-John Michael Talbot, The Music of Creation, p.29

Tarot and more fun with Charles Williams

Well, several people have told me recently that I should read some Charles Williams. He was after all the third major Inkling. So I picked up a copy of The Greater Trumps from the library.

Nearly all of Williams novels have some kind of supernatural plot device. Despite being a Christian, he had a lifelong fascination with the occult. Black magic of various sorts works it’s way into many of his stories. Apparently, Tolkien, for all the magic that appears in The Lord of the Rings, actually held to the traditional view that sorcery really was sourced in demonic powers and an abomination to God. He was always somewhat annoyed at how lightly Williams spoke of it.

This particular novel centers around tarot cards. I must admit, I found the subject somewhat intriguing. Growing up, tarot cards were in the piled in with Ouiga boards and other contraband. I knew very little about these sorts of things as they were forbidden. William’s novel both gives them some legitimacy while at the same time revealing Christ at work in their midst (through the card with the image of The Fool), making a mockery of the card’s mysteries and showing himself to be Lord of the past, present, and future.

This is not unlike theories I’ve heard about how the Zodiac cycle used by astrologers actually tells the story of the redemption of mankind.

A few interesting facts about tarot cards:

  • Tarot cards were first created in the early 1300’s, with the oldest surviving set being from 1442.
  • The cards were apparently not used for divination or any kind of occult practices until the mid 1700s! They were just for playing games until then.
  • Tarot cards are popular in Europe (especially France and Italy) for various card games. Their use in divination really only shows up in English speaking countries like Britain and the U.S.
  • Tarot divination is loosely based on medieval alchemy and the Kabbalah of Jewish mysticism. That Kabbalah stuff seems to show up all over the occult. It includes, free of charge, all kinds of nifty diagrams to represent super-secret stuff.

William’s novel starts out interestingly enough, but about halfway through it takes a nosedive into dream-sequence mushiness. What a shame. Nothing disappoints like a bad ending.

I still haven’t written Williams off yet though. I’ve begun reading what HE thought to be his greatest work, his Arthurian cycle Taliessin through Logres, The Region of the Summer Stars.

I’ve also heard that The Decent into Hell is his best novel. After that maybe I’ll have a more informed opinion.

Photo credit

A blogging identity

This from a recent Times article that explored why people Twitter. I would include Facebook status updates and even a lot of blogging as being relevant to this passage:

The clinical psychologist Oliver James has his reservations. “Twittering stems from a lack of identity. It’s a constant update of who you are, what you are, where you are. Nobody would Twitter if they had a strong sense of identity.”

“We are the most narcissistic age ever,” agrees Dr David Lewis, a cognitive neuropsychologist and director of research based at the University of Sussex. “Using Twitter suggests a level of insecurity whereby, unless people recognize you, you cease to exist. It may stave off insecurity in the short term, but it won’t cure it.”

For Alain de Botton, author of Status Anxiety and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Twitter represents “a way of making sure you are permanently connected to somebody and somebody is permanently connected to you, proving that you are alive. It’s like when a parent goes into a child’s room to check the child is still breathing. It is a giant baby monitor.”

Is this blog just me shouting at a wall that bounces my voice back to me? I mean, seriously, nobody reads it except my wife and a handful of friends on occasion. I tell myself it’s a scrapbook of ideas, a memory tool really. So much that I would like to remember, I forget entirely if I don’t write it down. I retain the blurry image that I can’t put my finger on. With this blog though, I CAN put my finger on it, at least part of the time.

I wonder, is it PART of my identity, or a compensation for my lack of identity? What about your blog?

Answer: Sometimes a little of both.

Mystery through spelling

Owen Barfield, in tracing the history of the word “genius” (from which comes “ingenious” and “engine”) notes that from it we also get the word “genie”. That’s the kind of genie that might live inside a magic lamp by the way.

He mentions in passing that using the Arabic spelling “djinn” can infuse it with the “deepened strength and mystery of the older word”. It harkens back to the root word’s supernatural origin (God-given skills), instead of the more contemporary, strictly intellectual meaning of the root. We process these kinds of subtle metaphors in language usually without thinking. There is so much wrapped up words. These are little clues into what makes poetry (and to a lesser extent prose) potent (or not).

Our meddling intellect

The poet Wordsworth get’s a lot of love from Owen Barfield. He is probably quoted and admired more than anyone frequently than anyone else I’ve seen so far in his writings.

…but perhaps the most brilliant, even epigrammatic, expression which has ever been given to the everlasting war between the unconscious, because creative, vital principle and the conscious, because destructive, calculating principle, is contained in four lines from a little peom of Wordsworth’s…

-Owen Barfield, History in English Words (Reader p. 42)

Here is that peom Barfield is talking about, with the pertinent verse in bold. (It’s a good one!)

The Tables Turned
by William Wordsworth

Up! up! my friend, and quit your books,
Or surely you’ll grow double.
Up! up! my friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble. . . .

Books! ’tis a dull and endless trifle:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it. . . .

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art,
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Metaphor changes language

This is one of the more lucid passages I discovered reading Owen Barfield:

Now apart from the actual invention of new words (an art in which many poets have excelled), the principal means by which this creation of meaning is achieved is – as has already been pointd out – metaphor. But it must be remembered that ANY specifically NEW use of a word or phrase is really a metaphor, since it attempts to arouse cognition of the unknown by suggestion from the known. I will take an example: the painter’s expression “point of view” was a metaphor the first time it was used with a psychological content. This content is today one of its accepted meanings – indeed, it is the most familiar one – but it could only have become so AFTER passing, explicity or implicityl, through the earlier stage of metaphor. In other words, either Coleridge or somebody else either said or thought (I am of course putting it a little crudely) ‘X is to the mind what “point of view” is to an observer of landscape’. And in so doing he enriched the content of the expression “point of view” just as Shakespeare enriched the content of ‘balm’ (and of ‘sleep’, too) when he called sleep the ‘balm of hurt minds’ (‘sleep is to hurt minds what balm is to hurt bodies’). Reflection will show that the ‘new’ use of an epithet – that is to say, its application to a substantive with which it has not hitherto been coupled – is also a concealed metaphor.

-Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: The Making of Meaning, (Reader p.20)

Barfield goes on to explain in quite some detail how the word “ruin” evolved (via metaphor) to mean several different things over the course of history. This stuff is interesting, but Podictionary makes it more fun!

Owen lays the smack down!

Much of Barfield’s writing is spent systematically explaining his thinking, giving lots of examples. He rarely mentions other people’s work and doesn’t have a lot of footnotes and references. It’s mostly meat, with little time spent agreeing or disagreeing with other scholars.

But then, every once in a while, seemingly out of nowhere, he whips out his Kalashnikov and fills somebody full of lead. He first quotes this passage by Max Muller:

Spiritus in Latin meant originally blowing, or wind. But when the principle of life within man or animal had to be named, its outward sign, namely the breath of the mouth, was naturally chosen to express it. Hence in Sanskrit asu, breath and life; in Latin spiritus, breath of life. Again, when it was perceived that there was something else to be named, not the mere animal life, but that which was supported by this animal life, the same word was chosen, in the modern Latin dialects, to express the spiritual as opposed to the mere material or animal element in man. All this is a metaphor. We read in the Veda, ii. 3, 4: ‘Who saw the first-born when he who had no form (lit. bones) bore him that had form? Where was the breath (asuh), the blood (asrik), the self (atma) of the earth? Who went to ask this from any that knew it?” Here breath, blood, self are so many attempts at expression what we should now call ’cause’.

Now if you didn’t know much about linguistics (like myself), you might nod your head when reading this and say, “Um, OK. That makes sense.” Ah, but this is a big deal! Barfield goes nuts:

It would be difficult to conceive anything more perverse than this paragraph; there is, indeed , something painful in the spectacle of so catholic and enthusiastic a scholar as Max Muller seated so firmly on the saddle of etymology, with his face set so earnestly towards the tail of the beast.

He seems to have gone out of his way to seek for impossibly modern and abstract concepts to project into that luckless disbin of pseudo-scientific fantasies – the mind of primitive man. Not only ’cause’, we are to suppose, was within the range of his intellect, but ‘something’, ‘principle of life’, ‘outward sign’, ‘mere animal life’, ‘spiritual as opposed to mere material’, and heaven knows what else.

Perverse; and yet for that very reason useful; for it pushes to a conclusion as logical as it is absurd, a view of mental history, which, still implicit in much that passes muster as anthropology, psychology, etc. – even as ordinary common sense – might easily prejudice an understand of my meaning, if it were ignored without comment.

-Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: Metaphor (Reader p.12)

This is like someone explaining how some bronze-age peasants put together a wagon and describing it like this:

“First, the ancient craftsman would select a building material for their wagon. Wanting to reduce their carbon footprint, they would likely choose wood for their cart instead of a steel or aluminum frame. They generally tried to find strong hard-woods for the spokes of the wheels, which enabled them to reduce the wheel width so as to make the cart more aerodynamic. Finally, the cart was left unpainted so their mode of transportation would properly accessorize their earth-tone inspired wardrobe.”

How silly. Contemporary material science and environmental conservation, physics, and even high-taste and fashion awareness projected onto ancient anthropology.

But is this really that much different than what Muller was doing? Contemporary psychology, modernist philosophical thought given as these ancient people’s clear motivation. Really? And making all kinds of assumptions about how their language developed to boot. What else would make a careful scholar fly off the handle?

How often do we buy silly explanations of things we know little about?

Good poetry -> “A felt change of consciousness”

This, from the introduction to the Owen Barfield reader:

Both as a writer and a thinker Barfield grounds his thought in language and literature. It is the subject of his earliest writing and remains throughout his career the seedbed from which his thinking grows. It was during his Oxford years that he realized that he had “very sharp” experiences in reading poetry and as a result began pondering intensely the nature of these experiences. He determined that they lay in “a felt change of consciousness” brought about by the way in which the language of poetry alters our awareness and ultimately our knowledge. This led to a concentrated study of the development of language and the nature of poetic diction. Such study led in turn to his interest in the nature of imagination,of meaning, of perception, and of the evolution of consciousness.

I find this very interesting. He read some poetry that he really liked one day and it stuck in his head. Now, most of us do this all the time. We hear some music we like, we read a story we love as a child, maybe we are accosted by something we see in a movie. And then we go on with life, maybe seeking out more things like it on occasion.

Barfield stopped and said, OK, there is something magical about this poetry. Why? Why the heck does it affect me in some strange way? He decided to dig deep into psychology and linguistics to come up with some kind of coherent answer.

Tolkien and Lewis were delighted to find they had the same peciliar feeling, when, as young men, they read the Matthew Arnold poem on the death of the norse god Balder. Later, when they read Barfield, they both declared, “Yes! That’s it. This explains what was going on.” His work and theories helped steer their own writing the rest of their lives.