Education, difficult concepts, and modelling

Some unrefined scribblings follow:

“Awkward” is a surprisingly complex concept I think -very difficult to teach. You either get it or you don’t and probably never will. There are so many difficult things just like this though. Is the only change possible a hard-edge behavioral conditioning? Education through raw change of action? Teaching a fool to keep his mouth shut? Keeping enough police concerned neighbors around that a man doesn’t hit his wife? “Teaching to the test” instead of cultivating real understanding (since this is way too hard)? Play all the right notes fast but never talk about theory? Christianity with piety but no theology?

Is the only sort of change possible for hard things? With man, I think so. However, with the power of the holy spirit, anything is possible. Does that mean though that the only thing you can do is pray and put your hope in God to fix men? But O, God’s ways are always tangled up in the hands of man. What that means is that we still keep trying to teach the very difficult. We continuously refuse to settle for raw behavior management, but strive also for instilling understanding – for flying solo, with no safety net. (Though we must have healers, more than ever, to care for the ones who fall down.)

How is modeling still the best way to each? (I’m not convinced that it always is, but I’m going to assume that Girard’s thought applies to education more than most folks realize) So why modeling? Because you must start with DO. This way, you really do learn the behavior first, without any understanding. But the DO is holistic. So many of the periphery things reveal the how and why. The little conversations in between, the habits surrounding the true practitioners. When you are taught formally, you only see a little snapshot of how real people DO. It may be very important information, but it’s only part of the puzzle. It’s your job to connect all the other pieces and with difficult things, this can be impossible for non-genius folk.

Modeling music is, surprisingly enough for all it’s perceived challenges, one of the most obviously straight-forward activity to model and for the student to participate in. The student plays with the master. They participate in the ensemble. Reading together doesn’t work as well since it is only one little piece of the whole experience. Better would be practicing, reading, rehearsing, talking about, and performing. What it looks like with music is on the surface, very simple. Gosh, it’s so time intensive though!!!

A poem of sorts to a stay-at-home mother of toddlers

A poem of sorts to a stay-at-home mother of toddlers.

I can feel your agony.
Here, stuck against the wall of the board room, power point droning on,
I watch the large red digital clock flick through the seconds.

At home, the children flit around with ever increasing rigor.
Never napping, always desiring so much more than you can give them.

When my mind is bent on creation, the pain evaporates.
I run and grow tired but not weary.
Like God making the earth with joy and fervor, but resting on the seventh day.

How hard it must be to see your creation run wild, feeding back, sprouting inches every week!
They know no sabbath and hence neither do you.
Your husband is both a comfort and another complex variable.

Enough to drive our own maker mad, if we were more like him.
Lord have mercy and make us more like you.

Envy Generator

Today, Seth Godin posted on the “internet as envy generator”. This is exactly right and, from the perspective of Rene Girard, has got to be the chief potential evil of the internet. All those recent studies on Facebook-induced depression have their root in the same thing. The internet makes it VERY easy to find someone just like you who is seemingly more successful and possessing a more meaningful life than you. This can be poison for your spirit.

A parenting continuum

This is a transcription of something I scribbled in my notebook a few days ago. It is a partially-worked-out in-progress piece of my philosophy of parenting.

The question:

What is the difference between training your children to walk on the right path and laying an oppressive burden on them?

Can you model this on some sort of continuum?

Hmmm, really? That doesn’t seem quite right. Too simple.

Let’s try again.

Alright. This is much better. At any particular moment, depending on the child, depending on the situation, it may look as if you are letting them do whatever they want or even ignoring them. Or, it could look as if you really have them under your thumb and are constraining or even disciplining them strongly. But the reality floats all along this line and changes with the context. You can get this backwards (and of course even the best parents sometimes do), but this is where good parenting lives.

How do you know where on the line to act? Wisdom and love. Wisdom comes primarily from time and experience, but having a good model to learn from (hopefully your own parents, if possible!) can be a great jump-start, even if you are only imitating their contextual actions without fully understanding why. Love is the unconditional love of God. This comes from God alone. It accompanies spiritual growth and most often looks like some form of denying selfishness.

Next, how about we place a few parenting styles on this line:

Liberal parenting (little to no discipline) lives to the left of center. Hippie/Rainbow variations are farther left.

“Christian” or “Conservative” parenting is going to live to the right. Shown are typical James Dobson-style parenting (popular in 1980-2000 American evangelicalism) and further right would be more old-school Puritan ideas. The “Tiger Chinese Mother” that caused such a stir recently in the Wall Street Journal would live even further to the right.

Now what do the kids actually look like?

On the one side we have total neglect. This is really bad. Kids starving and maybe carried away by Child Protective Services while their parents are strung out on the couch high on dope. (Please note that the fact that liberal parenting and neglect are close to each other on this line doesn’t mean that they look anything like each other. Sometimes just the opposite (see last diagram). Things are complicated. This is only one line and a first draft.)

On the farthest right, we have child as slave. Abused or extremely restricted. Likely unable to leave the house, even in adulthood. This is what some imagine Puritan children to look like (they don’t). When you read about tribal honor-killings in the news, it sure seems that maybe SOME Muslim cultures treat their daughters in a way that is close to this.

The spoiled brat is there in the middle-left. It is rare that anyone truly says “no” to him or her. On the other side, we have the child with the heavy burden. He/she does not hear “yes” very often. They are forced to conform in a thousand different ways.

Somewhere floating around the middle (again, depending on the child for more precision) will be a child who feels loved but who also has well-developed self-control.

How about one more?

This last one is kind of tricky. This is how much thought and emotional energy needs to be expended to pull it off.

Obviously the completely neglectful parent expends nothing. Oddly enough though, the very oppressive parent also doesn’t have to think much. They follow a draconian set of rules and simply execute it. That takes virtually no emotional energy or creative thought at all.

My wife pointed out that she thought the difficulty should peak over on the middle-left. That is, if you ever observe how much parents who never discipline have to expend SO much energy fighting with their bratty kids, it will sure seem as if they are running around the most. That is true. On the other hand, you may think a hovering and controlling parent (on the far-middle right) is obviously pouring tons of time and energy into their parenting. This is also true. That is why this graph doesn’t work very well. I guess I am graphing the amount of creative energy and emotional stability required of the parent to live in the wise middle zone. Nobody can do it of course, but an old and wise parent will probably be somewhere around here more often than not.

Us young parents, on the other hand, can just keep trying every day, sometimes getting it right and sometimes missing the mark badly. Let us be patient and wait for experience, and let us pray for Godliness! Then we may have both wisdom and love.

What will our age look like to those in the future?

I can’t help but draw your attention to a wonderfully thought-provoking post here.

The opening:

The age of Christendom, then the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, then the Moderns. The age of religion, the age of reason, the age of industry. What will our own age be called once we’ve finally grown out of it?

I say the later half of the 20th and the 21st will be The Age of Everything. An age when everything was possible, everything was done, everything was made and everything was purchased. In a thousand years, it will be said, “A thousand years ago, there was a time when you could buy anything you wanted. Big yellow couches shaped like bananas. Cars as big as houses. Houses as big as cities. Switchblade hair combs. Machines that could put you anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. Magic powder that could make a forty year old mother look like a new bride. Pills that made Herculean muscles grow on the arms and legs of a man. There used to be a time when a doctor could cut you open, pull out a diseased organ, and a man could live another twenty years.” And there will be some who don’t believe such stories, but for those who do believe these stories, the response will not be jealousy, but vertigo and terror at the thought of living under such conditions.

Misc notes on Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative

I just picked up the companion volume, The Art of Biblical Poetry, at the used bookstore. These notes are over 9 months old now though and I doubt I’ll ever get around to blogging more about them.

On how the Bible assumes that God’s purpose and the acts of men are tangled up throughout history.

The implicit theology of the Hebrew Bible dictates a complex moral and psychological realism in biblical narrative because God’s purposes are always entrammeled in history, dependent on the acts of individual men and women for their continuing realization.


On how the Bible explores what is going on inside of people’s heads way more than any other literature that came before. We discover the truth through that medium. This is old hat to our modern minds, but it was really out there with the OT was penned.

Indeed, an essential aim of the innovative technique of fiction worked out by the ancient Hebrew writers was to produce a certain indeterminacy of meaning, especially in regard to motive, moral character, and psychology. Meaning, perhaps for the first time in narrative literature, was conceived as a process, requiring continual revision – both in the ordinary sense and in the etymological sense of seeing-again – continual suspension of judgment, weighting of multiple possibilities, brooding over gaps in the information provided.


On the style of Hebrew scripture writing being intentionally over and against pagan mythology literature:

Shemaryahu Talmon says:

The ancient Hebrew writers purposefully nurtured and developed prose narration to take the place of the epic genre which by its content was intimately bound up with the world of paganism, and appears to have had a special standing in the polytheistic cults. The recitation of the epics was tantamount to an enactment of cosmic events in the manner of sympathetic magic. In the process of total rejection of the polytheistic religions and their ritual expressions in the cult, epic songs and also the epic genre were purged from the repertoire of the Hebrew authors.

What makes a novel good? Foreshadowing and reveal. The Bible does this really well all over the place! This stuff is no mistake, but a careful craft.

Much of art lies in the shifting aperture between te shadowy fore-image in the anticipating mind of the observer and the realized revelatory image in the work itself, and that is what we must learn to perceive more finely in the Bible.


On how the Bible goes out of it’s way so often to be verbal. Even general descriptions that may be handled by the narrator in other writings are instead put in the mouth of one of the characters.

Spoken language is the substratum of everything human and divine that transpires in the Bible, and the Hebrew tendency to transpose what is proverbial or nonverbal into speech is finally a technique for getting at the essence of things, for obtruding their substratum. In a mode of narration so dominated by speech, visual elements will necessarily be sparsely represented. And even in the exceptional case when a scene is conceived visually, the writer may contrive to report what is seen through what is spoken.

(See example of David talking with the watchmen looking out for Absolom’s forces.)


On how the Bible (compared to many other religious texts) has a very “untidy” view of God. Again is this idea of his purpose and promises being thickly integrated with human acts and history.

The monotheistic revolution of biblical Israel was a continuing and disquieting one. It left little margin for neat and confident views about God, the created world, history , and man as political animal or moral agent, for it repeatedly had to make sense of the intersection of incompatibles – the relative and the absolute, human imperfection and divine perfection, the brawling chaos of historical experience and God’s promise to fulfill a design in history. The biblical outlook is informed, I think, by a sense of stubborn contradiction, of a profound and ineradicable untidiness in the nature of things.


On how modern expectations are the primary obstacle to understanding really old writing. Loss of language nuance is not even a big of problem as this!

One might imagine the Bible as a rich and variegated landscape, perfectly accessible to the observer’s eye, but from which we now stand almost three millenia distant. Through the warp of all those intervening centuries, lines become blurred, contours are distorted, colors fade; for not only have we lost the precise shadings of implication of the original Hebrew words but we have also acquired quite different habits and expectations as readers.


On how much work good bible study is!

In has been my own experience in making a sustained effort to understand biblical narrative better that such learning is pleasurable rather than arduous.


The perfect day

C.S. Lewis on the perfect day:

For if I could please myself…I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the taproom the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes. At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them.

The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude…for eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies, there is no reasons why you should ever be in bed later than eleven. But when is a man to write his letters? You forget that I am describing the happy life I led with Kirk or the ideal life I would live now if I could. And it is an essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman’s knock.

Such is my ideal, and such the (almost) was the reality of “settled, calm, Epicurean life.” It is no doubt for my own good that I have been so generally prevented from leading it, for it is a life almost entirely selfish.

-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, p.143

Every once in a while, one of these days comes along! I found this silly representative pic from back in May of 2009.

So Long Michael

One year ago today, Michael Spencer, AKA “The Internet Monk” died very prematurely of cancer.

His wife Denise has written a moving and short post about his life here.

Michael may not have been that interested in most of what I blog about here and we only ever conversed a handful of times via email. Nevertheless, he is probably the #1 reason I write anything at all. Also, his wise advice tempered both my doubts and enthusiasm during some of the most difficult stretches of my life. It completely sucks that he’s gone.

Along those lines, here is a beautiful piece from my favorite musicians, Pierre Bensusan. It was written after the passing of Michael Hedges, a brilliant guitarist who also died very prematurely.

Fear and Trembling

Let me sum up for you some of what I think Kierkegaard is trying to get across in Fear and Trembling, one of his first major philosophical works.

Let me find something for you that cannot be explained via any of the usual methods. This is not just an isolated anomaly, but the firstborn of a new race of peoples who cannot be explained away. I find this in the faith of Abraham. You think you can categorize it, but you’re wrong. It’s way crazier than you realize.

For some good general notes, see this:

Here the necessity of a new category for the understanding of Abraham becomes apparent. Paganism does not know such a relationship to the divine. The tragic hero does not enter into any private relationship to the divine.

-Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, EK p.100

The same goal of science and magic

I’ve mentioned a snippet of this before in a couple other posts on magic, but I absolutely love this passage on the similarity of magic and science, as far as man and his motivations is concerned.

I have described as a `magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood.

You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.

If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. `All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command’ and `a sound magician is a mighty god’.3 In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit.4 The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He [the scientist] rejects magic because it does not work;5 but his goal is that of the magician.

-C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p.86

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